After 32 years working as an ICU nurse, I believed I had developed a strong capacity to confront death alongside my patients. I had become accustomed to the challenging scenarios: co-morbidities, multi-system organ failure, emergency intubations, ventilators, pressors, central lines, art lines, failure-to-thrive cases, code blues, and the grim sounds of ribs cracking during CPR.
It was not uncommon to witness families desperately shouting, “Do everything,” even when there was little left to do but hope and pray for a peaceful passing.
I had even faced my own health scares, such as being diagnosed with breast cancer after a routine mammogram, which, luckily, had no symptoms. I underwent a lumpectomy and radiation, leaving me with a distorted and disfigured left breast. Many years later, I discovered an irregularly shaped, discolored mole on my neck, which turned out to be melanoma. Fortunately, it hadn’t spread to my lymph nodes, and the surgery went smoothly.
But this time, things were different. Asthma, which had remained dormant for 15 years, resurfaced. I visited my pulmonologist, and while a chest X-ray showed no issues, my doctor recommended a CT scan of my lungs.
The CT scan revealed an unexpected solid mass on my left kidney, leaving me in shock. I had been asymptomatic and never anticipated this. I had only expected routine asthmatic lung views, not the discovery of a kidney mass.
Suddenly, my own mortality loomed before me. I had always assumed I would peacefully pass away in my sleep around the age of 83, but here I was at 67, grappling with uncertainty.
Further tests with contrast confirmed the presence of a solid mass, likely requiring a nephrectomy down the road. Questions flooded my mind: How much time do I have left? Who will care for my dogs? Will I witness my grandchildren grow up? Will I have more years with my children?
Facing the reality of one’s mortality is entering uncharted territory. I contemplated the spiritual aspect of dying, the idea of going to heaven and my soul transcending, but the truth is that death is the end, the finality of existence.
I worried that I had exhausted my physical and emotional strength. Another cancer diagnosis was daunting, and while I could accept the treatments and surgery, the fear was very real. It was like the fear of taking a flight into the next dimension, a journey we are all unprepared for.
We’ve lived our lives on Earth, but how do we navigate the next act, leaving our physical selves behind and entering the unknown hemisphere? Yes, I admit it—I am afraid. I finally understood the fear of flying.
Debbie Moore-Black is a nurse who blogs at Do Not Resuscitate.