“I’m Ready to Die.” – “I’m Not Ready to Die.”
By Kendra Deja, LCSW, MSN, GNP-BC, ACHPN
Jim was a 67-year-old Vietnam Veteran with stage IV lung cancer who was admitted to the hospital for difficulty breathing. I was a palliative care social worker sitting at his bedside, tasked with helping him “make a plan” in the absence of any close family or friends. Jim had a weathered face and embodied the “rough-around-the-edges” toughness and bravery that I encountered from many veterans during my career in the VA. Jim had had a hard life, made more difficult by substance abuse and homelessness after Vietnam.
I can’t do this. I can’t die, do you understand?
As I sat there next to Jim, watching his chest rise and fall with each labored breath, I discussed some of the options for care as he faced the imminent end of his life. In the midst of this conversation, Jim slowly sat up and reached for my hand. I offered him my outstretched hand in return, which he gripped with veracity. Looking straight into my eyes, Jim’s own eyes filled with terror as he said, “I can’t do this. I can’t die, do you understand? You don’t know the things I did over there, the things I did in Vietnam. I don’t know what’s going to happen to my soul.”