Letting Her Go: How direct care work prepared me to care for my wife

John Booker

We direct care workers are a very important and powerful group of individuals. At times, we actually hold the very power of life and death in our hands. Especially if we are CPR-certified or have some advanced training, we can perform interventions that make a profound, life-sustaining difference in a matter of moments.

And those skills, I’ve learned, apply to our own lives as well as our work.

When I was challenged, many years ago, with assisting my mother in her last days, I had no CNA training or experience. I had no idea how to help my mother or make her comfortable and myself safe, so we both suffered.

As a result of that experience, I became a professional direct care worker. I soon acquired a new set of skills, like how to take someone’s blood pressure and recognize its danger signs, how to measure a pulse or respiration rate and know what to make of the results, and how to position a bed-bound person. I also learned about things like the need for special diets and the importance of proper hydration – all important skills and knowledge for helping to maintain a person’s life.

A few years ago, I was called on that training for a purpose I had never anticipated: Caring for my wife during what became a long battle with cancer. In caring for her, I found that my direct care worker training and experience made me a much better caregiver, but it also brought me face to face with a terrible choice.

At least twice, my knowledge of body systems and vital signs, especially as they related to my wife’s condition, helped save her life, as I found that her blood pressure was dangerously low and rushed her to the hospital for emergency care. That was a very encouraging and empowering feeling.

As her conditioned worsened, I was able to use my skills to assist her in many ways. That gave me a sense of power. I even began to hope that I could help turn the tide and she could beat this unyielding disease.

However, there was one thing that I was forgetting … my wife’s own views. She had struggled so long and so very hard during this multi-year battle that she had become very tired and disillusioned. After a while, she just wanted to rest.

As her condition began to deteriorate and my desire to intervene became more and more consuming, she let me know that I was to back off when we got to the final stage of the fight, restrain myself from using my skills, and let nature take its normal course.

It took every strength in my body, every fiber of my nerves not to revive her after she took her last breath earlier this month. I felt sure I could use CPR to bring her back, if only for a little while. I wanted nothing more, but the smile on her face proved to me that the decision we had come to was the right one for her.

As I thought about her final moments in the days that followed, I realized that honoring my wife’s wishes was also something I learned from my direct care work. I was taught to honor the rights of the people I cared for, including the fact that they are entitled to the final say in how they are cared for.

Following that simple-sounding mandate may be the hardest thing we caregivers ever do. Caring for my wife as her disease sapped her strength, sometimes making her violently ill, was often difficult. But none of that was anything compared to how hard it was to do nothing but hold her tight as she slipped away from me.