A Series of Byroads to Where he Was Always Headed: A Nurse’s Story

James King is the kind of person you’d like to enter any room you might occupy. He is kind, clear, razor-sharp, funny, affable, and easy to talk to. Jim has also lived the kind of life that makes for good story-telling. While deeply rooted in family- a marriage of 33 years and counting to his husband, Scott, and as the steward of a beautiful home and beloved cats-Jim has also done a lot. His spirit is the still point in a life that has meandered, a series of course corrections, Jim would say, and in the end, landed him in the very rooms where he most belongs.

Jim is a nurse. He didn’t set out to be one, exactly. But he is the kind of person who knows what it means to share his gifts and talents and to find it lucky to be able to give in the ways he can. That matters as a musician, which he also is. Jim went to NYU to study music and became a piano teacher both in a school system as well as a choir master, private teacher, and in local cabaret theater. He played 7 days a week (most hours of the day into the night) and after moving out on his own as a still young man, something had to give. He wanted to move his musical life back to a pleasure, not a grind.

Jim decided to pursue his interest in health care. He applied to a surgeon’s assistant program at Cornell University, but the application was somehow lost. Here began a byroad. He was encouraged to just get near healthcare. So he took a job doing billing for a cardiology department for about a year. Then Cornell found his application.

At this point, it wasn’t feasible to enter a three-year academic program while also working full time to support himself. Even though it was what he thought he wanted, he had to turn it down.

So, for the next 25 plus years, Jim stayed near healthcare serving in various administrative capacities. Then, one day while acting as manager for a customer contact center for Healthnet, he was informed that the business had been bought by United Health Care, but not the employees. So now Jim had two years to figure out what to do next before the layoffs went into effect. He looked into PA School, which didn’t look promising given how much prior experience they required. At 52 years of age, after a full career, Jim looked into nursing school.

While his contract wound down, he began to tackle the prerequisites. This byroad came with benefits. After his last day at the old job, Jim found himself with a severance and six more mostly summer months to focus exclusively on finishing his coursework. Which he did.

Soon thereafter he was off to 18-20 months of nursing school and “happier than [he] had ever been.” Now came the job hunt. He had heard the rumor that nurses get snatched up the minute they complete their education and training. This was not necessarily true.

“THEY DO NOT COME KNOCKING ON YOUR DOOR,” Jim jokes.

Perhaps they might have if not for another “mistake,” which led to another byroad. Jim had let his HR contact know that he wanted a placement in an ER or an ICU. He didn’t yet know that you don’t get hired out of nursing school into the ER nor the ICU. Although he applied to over 40 hospitals near and far, the phone didn’t ring, and no one knocked. His credentials were impressive, but his experience was nil.

So how were his classmates all getting hired then? Jim made a phone call back to HR and was reminded of his express conditions. Oh, he realized. He said in response, “I’ll take anything.”

He had two interviews the next day and was hired.

And so began the winding path of nursing. May 2013: Bridgeport Hospital on the pulmonary floor-an engaging high stakes position with a hefty commute. By February of 2015, preferring to work in his own community and be home sooner, Jim went to an open house one day for Danbury Hospital and, of course, hit it off with one of the recruiters. He was offered a job. Cue the next clerical error. On the day he started, Jim was told that he was a few months shy of the experience requirement, but they could offer him a spot on the oncology floor. 

This was a pivot moment back toward the ever-awaiting path. Jim explained that on this floor and in these rooms, you do not treat patients for cancer, but with cancer, as well as any overflow from other floors. His skillset broadened and sharpened. He was finally getting the experience in healthcare that he had long ago been drawn by. 

In search of additional hours to round out the 32 he was already logging 3-11:30 pm four days a week, Jim began to ask around about per diem work. Someone mentioned hospice.

By some mix of the “practical and magic (if there is any difference, Jim says)” Jim wound up interviewing for Regional Hospice. He was hired.

In another course correction, hoping to give up working evenings, Jim took a full-time job, with the traditional M-F 9-5 ish hours at the Cancer Center in Danbury hospital. He then let Regional know that he could work one day a week (2-3 times a month), a schedule he has maintained since 2016. This rotation set into motion a bookending of ministry he would not immediately understand. Still quite happy to serve in both locations, Jim explained their differences. At the Cancer Center, his patients are ambulatory. They come in for treatment sometimes daily, weekly, or monthly, occasionally, for years. Some leave and come back again. They often come with family or a dear friend to keep them company for the long sessions. While Jim would always get to know his patients and their companions, he himself became the only companion when Covid protocols prohibited guests. So he would listen. To most anything, they might want to talk about. And he was grateful to hold their stories and their hands.

In hospice, his patients are in beds, much more reliant upon the presence and physical support of their nurses, a trust he holds with mastery and tenderness. They, too, are ordinarily surrounded by family, and they too lost this critical community when restrictions narrowed the numbers allowed in the rooms. So, here, too, Jim would listen, grateful in fact to better know the people who were in this last chapter under his care. 

“At the end of a long week, on a scheduled weekend, I never think I have work tomorrow. I think, I am going to hospice.

“It is amazing what they will tell you,” he continues.

While some patients, notably in a cancer treatment center, might feel like a number, they tell Jim directly that with him, they never do. And while in hospital, the dying may sometimes not be held in sacred knowing, at Regional, and with Jim, they always are. 

Here is where the byways really intersect, and Jim has been drawn into some of the most powerful moments of his career and his life. 

Jim checks the census when he arrives for his shift. He is looking for names that he might already know. From his day job. And sometimes he finds them. And when he enters the room, the patient and the family look up and say, Oh, it’s you!  “I get to take care of them again,” he says. “And the look on their face when I walk in is so incredibly moving, emotional and heartwarming.”

Here is Jim who knew their stories and was there for the journey already. Jim who knows them. 

Patients stop treatment (at the Cancer center or elsewhere), Jim explains, for various reasons. They look next to palliative care and/or hospice. This can sometimes go on for months. He is there to answer their questions, to, as he puts it, educate them about dying. About pain management. About their choices for themselves and their loved ones. Because sometimes, patients enter hospice for what is called “respite care,” which is more so to give caregivers a much-needed reprieve from the demands of caring for loved ones on their own. So, a patient might indeed come in and leave again. But then, after time, come back and stay. 

Tell me what will happen, they say. How long will this be? they ask. Is she comfortable? Does he know I am here?

Jim has a deep and abiding love for this final journey and his great privilege to be a part of it. “When you say you are delighted to be present for a birth, everyone understands,” he explains.   “But when you say you are so lucky to be by the dying, few can comprehend what I mean.”

Jim is one of the gatekeepers at the door of Mystery. Some questions he can answer as time and experience have prepared him to do. But some, none of us can. Yet it is a privilege to be a witness all the same. Some patients revive and stay much longer than anyone might have thought to wish for. Some decline sooner than anyone expects. All of it is unknown and all of it requires attention, expertise, and respect, which Jim has in spades.

Much of his job is helping to manage expectations. To help loved ones decide, do I stay or go? What should I do? He wishes, on occasion, to have a crystal ball, but without one, he teaches them the signs of dying, the cues that might suggest timing. Maybe. And he assures them, with years of experience to inform him, that their loved ones are comfortable and safe and as cared for as anyone can be. Because they are. Hospice nurses are a special breed and those who are called not only are finely tuned experts in nursing, they are also finely tuned humans. 

In spiritual matters, Jim takes their lead. He learns a great deal from the customs and rituals of various faiths and family systems. And he supports whatever they would like to introduce into the experience as best he can. He will figure out what they are looking for and help to make it happen. Whatever helps them to make sacred these last moments.

One such moment involved a cat. A cat who leapt to the bed and laid on the body of a patient at the exact moment that he died. The family felt such wonderment and awe and gratitude that the cat was there, also, to help. 

While that is rare, the rest of the items and stories brought into the room are just as precious and critical to care. Jim learns about the whole lives of the person who may not be able to tell him, himself or herself. He looks at wedding photos and cards from grandchildren and hears the stories. “So much of what I do is listen,” he says again. He knows that the person he sees is only a tiny, tiny piece of the whole story; who else he or she has been, is so much bigger and so much more. 

Jim gets to hear the entire arc of their story. He hears the whole story while it is ending. And he is lucky to do it.

Jim agrees that that is what it means when your work is also your calling. “You do what you have to do in life,” he says. “But then you find it. The thing you were moving to all along.”

Maybe the path is circuitous. Maybe the mistakes aren’t mistakes after all, but ways which lead on to ways and more ways Home. 

When asked, Do others understand, what you mean when you say you love to be by the dying? Do others get what you do?, Jim pauses and smiles and says, “Not many.”

When asked, what do you wish people could know that you know? Jim again pauses and his eyes crinkle and he takes a breath.

“How natural a part of life death is, just as a birth is and just as magical. I wish that more people could know how comfortable and peaceful, and enchanting it can be.”

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