Tanya was very young, in her mid-twenties, a very beautiful girl with no outward signs of her advanced cancer of the lungs. She just could not breathe well!
She had been an athlete – a runner and a champion swimmer – and was desperately trying to keep some control over her life. Because of this, we were careful not to intrude on her need for choice as she faced her last days.
The ward contained eight beds, and often we had Israelis, Palestinians and immigrants from many European countries in the ward together. Tanya’s bed was at the end of the ward where there were two beds side by side, and six beds in a row at the side.
One day, I was at the desk at the top of the ward, when Tanya slowly came up to me, walking with difficulty. We had no common language but had learnt to understand each other in the time she had been with us.
She then made it very clear that she wanted to race, to run! She got down on her hands, and with feet in the ‘starting’ position, wanted me to ‘fire the gun’. All I could do was to shout: “One… Two… Three…GO!” and Tanya very slowly started her race down the length of the ward.
By this time, the other patients and their families had realized what was happening.
Patients who could, sat up in bed, while others were able to line the short distance to the end of the ward. They all clapped and cheered as she ran. The cry that went up in this palliative care ward was one of joy and hope as she arrived safely near her bed, exhausted but so happy. Jews, Israelis, Muslims, Christian Arabs, all joined together in support of this race.
Tanya died the next day, having run her last race surrounded by very loving witnesses. She died peacefully, and in death was as beautiful as in life.
It was sobering to be part of this race and to know that people of all cultures, languages, experiences, could care for each other as together they faced the end of their lives.
Beris Bird is a registered nurse based in Australia. She has worked in many different countries, providing palliative care to patients in diverse settings throughout the world.
This article first appeared on the International edition of ehospice and is republished with permission.