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Editorial: Learning to listen

Kelly Keane, MEd./counseling nursing success program at Holyoke Community College with Martha Keochareon, a South Hadley women who invited HCC nursing students to visit and learn from her while she was on her death bed.

Kelly Keane, MEd./counseling nursing success program at Holyoke Community College with Martha Keochareon, a South Hadley women who invited HCC nursing students to visit and learn from her while she was on her death bed. Purchase photo reprints »

Maybe because most nurses tend to focus on helping sick people get well, nursing training programs typically don’t spend a lot of time teaching about end-of-life care.

So when Martha Keochareon, a South Hadley nurse with end-stage pancreatic cancer, offered herself up as a training opportunity for Holyoke Community College nursing students, it was a rather unusual and invaluable learning experience she presented.

Keochareon, 59, died Dec. 29, six years after she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

In the final weeks of her life, as she was cared for by a team of family, friends and hospice volunteers and staff, she invited nursing students into her home. No questions were off limits. She was dying, but she wanted to teach.

Knowing her time was short, Keochareon, an alum of the HCC nursing school, had called officials there in November. She told them about her illness and asked if there were any HCC nursing students who might find in her situation a learning opportunity. She would offer them an up-close view of a hospice patient, a chance to see what advanced cancer looks like — and an opportunity to talk candidly and ask any questions they wanted.

Realizing they had been handed the proverbial teaching moment, the teachers at HCC said yes. The college arranged for two students, Michelle Elliot and Cindy Santiago, to visit Keochareon’s bedside several times in November and December as her disease progressed.

In the beginning, the visits focused on the medical issues surrounding her cancer. The students examined her and asked questions about her symptoms and the course of her disease and treatment.

Those meetings got quieter, slower and, quite possibly, deeper as the students spent time with a woman who was in pain and close to death, and yet still had much to give.

The chance to slow down is not a small thing. As one HCC instructor said, the pace of many nursing jobs has become faster than ever, so the idea of intentionally slowing the pace to make room for a deeper connection with a patient is one worth promoting.

According to Keochareon’s daughter, Barbara Dimauro, the work her mother did with the HCC students was deeply meaningful. She said it was therapeutic, for her mother, who had been so sick for so long, to be in a position to contribute something valuable to her chosen profession.

Dimauro is starting a scholarship for HCC nursing students in honor of her mother. That is a tribute her mother, no doubt, would have been proud of — just as she was when the college in December informed her she was being given a certificate as an honorary professor of nursing. Those accolades are warranted, for the learning opportunity she offered those students is not something easily replicated, and certainly not in a textbook.

As she had hoped, Martha Keochareon found a way to make meaning of her death, a meaning embodied by the relationships she formed with Elliot and Santiago. Because of Keochareon, they learned through experience the healing properties of listening. And they learned the painful lesson that healing does not always include surviving and that caring deeply does not always mean curing.

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