Home hospice nurse and author Erin McGraw remembers the moment she realized she would write a book.
It was August 2003, and she was doing chores at home. The "Oprah Winfrey Show" was on the television, but McGraw wasn't really watching. She overheard Oprah talking about how everyone has a story.
"Something just clicked in my brain, and I thought, 'Every single one of my patients has a story, and they're never able to tell it,'" McGraw said.
The result was The Journey of the Terminally Ill: Through the Eyes and Heart of a Hospice Nurse, 106 pages of true stories and original poetry published in May 2004 by iUniverse.
After starting that day last summer, McGraw needed only ten months to publish her first book. "It just all flowed out. I couldn't stop it. It was amazing," she said.
Journey chronicles nine people -- patients and friends of McGraw -- at the end of their lives. McGraw wrote the book for general audiences. "In my mind, my audience was everyone. I want to educate people about hospice and I also want people to know what it's like to be a hospice nurse," she said.
"It's written through what I feel and what I see [while] taking care of these patients. I want people to be more interested in hospice, knowing that there's more than one option for their loved ones," McGraw said. "Hospice isn't necessarily about dying. Our patients do a lot of living when they're with us."
The way hospice patients live is often very inspiring. Included in McGraw's book is the story of a high school friend who passed away from cancer. "It was kind of a cleansing thing for me, thinking all the way back to high school and reliving all those death experiences. Some of it was hard," McGraw said.
She included the story of the only patient she's ever attended to who died in her presence. One of the patient's family members called McGraw and told her the patient wanted her there. She arrived to find him unconscious. "He squeezed my hand, and ten minutes later he died. He waited for me -- he wanted me there. Once he knew I was there, he died," she said.
One of McGraw's patients knew she was writing a book and wanted to be a part of it. McGraw obliged, and followed the woman through her entire illness. They agreed that the woman's story would be the final chapter of the book. McGraw saw her for the last time on the day before she passed away. Exactly three months later, Journey was published.
The stories are just a few examples of the inspiration found in hospice nursing, according to McGraw.
"The most rewarding part is when you start off with a family, you walk in and they're scared, the patient's pain is out of control, there's lot of anxiety and fear about death," she said. "You spend time with them and educate them. In the end, you see the patient resting comfortably. The family is more confident and comfortable.
Educating is a huge part of hospice in general, and I think it's so rewarding to make it less frightening for everybody, by telling them what's going to happen and what to look for."
The rewards far outweigh the unique challenges and frustrations that are a natural part of hospice nursing. McGraw said it becomes very difficult when people don't want to listen. "They think once they get into hospice they're just going to lay down and die. They don't realize they can travel, they can have a party. And they don't take their medication like they're supposed to," she said.
McGraw grew up in the small mountain community of Granby, near the ski town of Winter Park. She said it was a typical small town. "Everybody knows everything about you, and your parents know what you've done before you get home," she laughed. "You grow up very safe, and very naive in a way."
It was always McGraw's goal to become a nurse. She enjoyed working at a ski clinic in Winter Park as a teenager. She attended the University of Northern Colorado for three-and-a-half years before finishing her bachelor of science in nursing degree at Regis University in 1996.
Her transition into hospice came quickly. After only six months at Presbyterian St. Lukes Hospital, she moved to a position at St. John's, a hospice facility in Lakewood. Six years later, McGraw briefly worked for Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers before landing at the Visiting Nurses Association about one year ago. The VNA is a nonprofit organization that provides hospice care for patients in their homes.
While nursing was always her career goal, writing has come natural for McGraw since her childhood. She excelled with essays and poetry in high school. "Papers were always easy for me to write, but I was so focused on being a nurse that I didn't realize I could do something with my writing. I've always loved to write. I've always loved to reach people through the written word."
She wants to continue her writing career, too. "I would love to maybe do another book of poetry, because I have a bunch of poems that didn't fit into the book," she said.
"I hope [Journey] comforts people who are going through it, who have gone through it. I hope it inspires people to go into hospice nursing."