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While her father was dying, a nurse manager worked to lessen his suffering

Dorothy Tiernan would herself become a hospice nurse.
Courtesy of Dorothy Tiernan
Dorothy Tiernan would herself become a hospice nurse.

Updated July 12, 2023 at 4:29 PM ET

This story is part of the My Unsung Hero series, from the Hidden Brain team, about people whose kindness left a lasting impression on someone else.

In 1986, Dorothy Tiernan's father was dying of cancer. On what would be the last day of his life, Tiernan and her family gathered around his bed at the hospital.

Her father was unable to communicate. But his family sensed he was in pain, because he was writhing around in his bed.

"It was incredibly distressing to experience the helplessness that I felt in wanting him to be comfortable, and having no way to be able to do this, no way to be able to help him," Tiernan recalled. "And I remember asking one of the nurses, his nurse, 'Please, can he have some more medication, please? Can he have more morphine?'"

She will never forget the nurse's response.

"'Well, no, he's not supposed to get it. He has to wait for the full four hours and I can't really give it to him now. And it really should be enough for him.'"

Hugh Tiernan, father to Dorothy, is pictured in 1985 — the year before he died.
/ Courtesy of Dorothy Tiernan
Courtesy of Dorothy Tiernan
Hugh Tiernan, father to Dorothy, is pictured in 1985 — the year before he died.

Tiernan and her family were in despair. Her father clearly appeared to be suffering, and there was nothing they could do.

That evening, the nurse manager, who was in charge of the entire hospital, stuck her head in his room to see how he was doing.

"And she could see what my father was experiencing," Tiernan said. "She went and she got the nurse and she said, 'Medicate this man now.'

"'But I don't have an order,' the nurse said. And this woman said, 'You go ahead and medicate him now, I will take responsibility for it.'"

The nurse came back quickly and medicated her father. He appeared to finally get comfortable, and within the next 24 hours or so, he died.

"So I want to remember this woman. I think her name might have been Mary; I don't remember," Tiernan said. "I just remember the feeling that she gave me, this feeling of: 'I will help you. I'm in control, and I will do what I can.'"

After that day, Tiernan decided to go to nursing school, and for 20 years, she was a hospice nurse. Often, when she was helping a patient in distress, she thought about that nurse's act of compassion for her father.

My Unsung Hero is also a podcast — new episodes are released every Tuesday. To share the story of your unsung hero with the Hidden Brain team, record a voice memo on your phone and send it to myunsunghero@hiddenbrain.org.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laura Kwerel
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
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