Hospice nurse grateful to help COVID-19 patients
Story and photo by James Coburn, Feature Writer
Candy O’Neal’s biggest challenge in today’s nursing environment of COVID-19 has been the transition of caring for home-bound patients to those living out their final days in a nursing home, she said. She had to give up her previous patients up to another nurse to only work in one facility.
But O’Neal is used to being flexible in her career with a history in medical surgical care, emergency room care, and clinical nursing. Hospice is all about comfort and quality of life.
“Right now to me, this COVID stuff has kind of put people into a depression,” said O’Neal, RN case manager at Companion Hospice in Guthrie.
O’Neal understands the need to quarantine COVID patients to a room. But it has caused them more weight loss and cognitive changes. (Story continues below)
“It’s not getting out in the dining areas — not getting to have activities — not seeing their loved ones. Having a parent or a child come visit through a window that you can’t open is not the same. They’re lacking that though, and so that’s been pretty hard on them.”
O’Neal wouldn’t change being a nurse. She knows that she is making a difference in life the best she can. Helping families cope with their loved ones facing a terminal illness is heartfelt for O’Neal.
“This team here works well together. We all get along — all of us. And that’s hard to find,” said O’Neal, who has worked as Companion hospice nurse for nearly three years.
A friend of hers who is now a nurse practitioner had been trying to recruit O’Neal to Companion for a couple of years before she accepted an interview. At first she was hesitant to accept being a hospice nurse who answers families’ hard questions about an impending death. After three weeks she accepted her new journey in life.
“Something just told me to do it,” she said. “And so I did, and honestly this has been the best decision I’ve made. It changed my outlook on life. I feel like I’m the one that feels rewarded from this. It kind of makes me emotional. I feel like we both end up at peace if that makes sense.”
Oftentimes people ask O’Neal how she endures being a hospice nurse every day. She is helping people make a transition in life during a profound time of need in their lives.
“I’m helping them comfortably pass over. But you not only care for the patient — you care for the families a lot,” she explained. “We do a lot of close interaction with the families.”
Helping families brings a continuity of care that O’Neal cherishes. She learns so much about their lives and what brought them to their present point in life, she said.
Hospice care does not focus on waiting for a family member to pass on. It’s more of a celebration of life and what life has meant. The nurses meet their patients in whatever state of mind they are experiencing in life.
There are some patients that she has had a few years. They are re-certified for hospice as long as they continue to decline, she said.
“I get really attached to my patients. It’s hard not to,” O’Neal said. “But it’s almost like losing a family member. You get close to them when you see them two or three times a week, and then as the disease progresses you may see them every day.”
Her endurance in being a nurse stems from when she decided to become a nurse during her early twenties. She was studying to become a veterinarian when her grandparents became sick. She was told her grandfather was dying of cancer.
“I thought I already like doing it for animals. I think I want to do it for people,” she said.
O’Neal was auditing courses in nursing school when her grandfather passed away. She took a break from her nursing studies after he died and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in veterinary school. She had a baby. Her family needed her, so she shifted her career to work as a medical assistant in the office of Dr. Todd Krehbiel, who persuaded her to go back to school to earn a nursing degree. She went on to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing at Langston University.
During the holiday season, O’Neal says she is thankful for life itself and that her family and friends are all healthy during a time of uncertainty.
“Right now, it’s uncertain even though we wear masks everywhere, you still don’t know,” she said. “I’d say I’m grateful for holidays but I’m really just thankful for life because right now there’s a lot of people that are struggling.”