A Student Perspective: Completing the Zelda Foster Focused Learning Opportunity

No matter how hard things get, you will get through them. This is what I leave the Silver School with, along with many other life lessons clients have gifted me with. As part of the Zelda Foster Studies in Palliative and End-of-Life Care Focused Learning Opportunity, my current field placement is at the Brooklyn Veterans Hospital in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where I relocated to from the Manhattan Veterans Hospital after Hurricane Sandy.

This was a difficult transition. I waited for three weeks in guilt and worry, wondering how clients were doing (to discover when I returned that three died and one died minutes before I visited him). My 40-minute door-to-door commute turned into an hour and a half. I lost a supervisor I got along well with, and had to reintegrate into a whole different environment.

In this placement I worked with inpatients in palliative care, and outpatients receiving chemotherapy and treatment related to chronic illness. It was a hard and beautiful year. I saw clients die, survive, and relapse. But in profound illnesses and terminal prognoses, I have seen that people have the propensity for faith in time. They will have another day, month, or year. Some people may call this denial, but I saw it as a testament to the human spirit. People need something to believe in, and what a better thing to believe in than life?

You have to be very brave to believe in life when you have a metastatic disease that is spreading throughout your lungs, heart, and liver. Doctors can only estimate your death-they can’t pinpoint the exact hour you’ll die.

You have to be courageous to sit for hours in chemotherapy, unsure if a higher dosage will make you nauseous. Courage is also the attempt to have the social life you had before you had inches of your colon removed and you were afraid you’d defecate on yourself in public. This is hard stuff. And when I say hard, I mean moments that question your dignity and quality of life. Where do you draw the line? It’s a very personal choice, and there aren’t rights or wrongs. As they say in social work (fellow students) you have to be where the client is.

So, I went where they were. If this was a readiness for death, and acceptance of the life they lived, I agreed with them it may be time. Or if they said they wanted whatever extra day treatment could provide, I admired their fight. If they said God would take care with them, then I felt God would. If they said they were scared, I accepted their fear. Students and professionals who are not in the palliative or end-of-life care field may wonder how personal views affect our work. Could I really believe all of these things? Yes, because it’s not about what I believe. It’s about helping clients discover meaning and purpose in their situation.

A year prior to starting this field placement, there was part of me that wasn’t sure I could handle death. As someone who lost three friends at a young age, being around death was a challenge. How unfair, I thought, death and tragedy can be. I don’t think that this viewpoint has changed necessarily. Good people die. Very good people suffer. And death and illness is not about fairness. It’s a part of life. I won’t be cliche, but it’s true that everyone dies. How they die, and what they leave behind is another. The greatest gifts my clients have given me are their stories. Their legacy will always stay with me. Each human life is so precious, and everyone had something to teach me.

My clients gave me something very significant-the opportunity to appreciate life more. They taught me to pursue my dreams. They taught me to love and invest in my friends and family. And most importantly, they taught me to believe in my own life. Seeing people die has made me explore my own decisions and morality: Did I pick the right career? Will I marry the right person? What if something happens to my children? How will it feel when I am older and my friends and family die? But, I have learned that you must keep going.

I have decided I want to go into the HIV/AIDS field. With advancement in medicine, people can now live with a once terminal condition. However, people in marginalized communities in the United States and abroad are getting infected at high levels and need help in living with and managing this condition. My experience in the Zelda Fellowship has given me the motivation to help make meaning in people’s lives.

With this, I say goodbye to my clients and a wealth of experience and I welcome the future.

Goodbye graduate school, hello life.