Dreams: Helping The Patient Who Sees Things That Cannot be Studied

Her body stiffened with strong emotion as she shared a vivid dream she’d had after being diagnosed with a life-threatening disease.

Lung Ta (Windhorse) by jparadisi

Lung Ta (Windhorse) by jparadisi

She me told the dream with tears in her eyes. It brought to mind stories I heard as a child of Saints experiencing visions. Placing my hand on her shoulder was the only supportive gesture I could think of. I didn’t know the dream’s meaning, but I understood its importance.

I had vivid dreams during cancer treatment, a few even while awake during meditation. I recorded them in a journal, paying attention to how they made me feel: peaceful or apprehensive. I was fortunate to have a friend who believes in dreams. She listened to mine, helping me discover their personal messages.

Nursing is based on science. However, I’ve been a nurse long enough to know that science hasn’t found the answer to everything. Some patients, and nurses, see things that can not be studied objectively.

Dreams and visions are narrated with conviction by the alert and oriented, distinguishing them from feverish ramblings, opioid-induced illusions, or the hallucinations of hepatic failure. This personal mysticism commands respect. It does not usually find its way into the patient’s chart.

My patient needed someone to listen to, and validate, her dream. She did not know its meaning. Dream interpretation was not part of my nursing school curriculum (perhaps it should have been), but helping a patient in spiritual distress was.

As I listened, I felt that chilly pull on my gut, alerting me to truth. Maybe not my truth, but certainly my patient’s, who I did not know very well. How could I help her? I resorted to tools I learned from my friend, who helped me interpret my cancer dreams.

First, I asked, “How does the dream make you feel? Does it cause peace or fear?” Although her dream contained dark imagery, overall, it left her feeling hopeful. In dreams, death and dark images do not necessarily symbolize real death, but often represent a significant life change, such as a life-changing diagnoses.

Next, I emphasized that dreams are powerful, personal messages. Only my patient would understand the unique significance of the images she saw.

I asked, “What do the images mean to you?” She was able to describe her personal language of symbolism to me, and in doing so, explained her dream to both of us. I saw relaxation loosen the muscles of her face and body, as she felt the power of the dream take effect.

If you’re interested in learning more about dream interpretation, I suggest reading The Secret Language of Signs, by Denise Linn.

Do you find dreams to be an important part of your patients’ journeys? What do you do when patients present their dreams to you?

Pondering Dreams

Gate Keepers by jparadisi 2011

Gate Keepers by jparadisi 2011

People who deny themselves the privilege of dreaming are doomed to failure.

Oscar Hammerstein II

I met a twenty-something student who wants to become a doctor. He’s completed a GED and is taking art classes at a community college. For some reason, he enrolled in a science class and became enchanted by the organisms floating on a glass slide he viewed through a microscope. That’s how he decided to become a doctor. He asked for my opinion. Not wishing to throw doubt on the dreams of another, I pondered my response.

His question reminded me of the only writers’ workshop I’ve ever attended. Introductions were made around the library table where we gathered. At my turn, I introduced myself as an artist and writer developing a body of work from my experiences as a registered nurse. The eye rolling, and general lack of enthusiasm expressed by the group clearly implied my dream was ridiculous. During lunch break, a fellow participant actually told me, “You know, it takes an MFA to become either an artist or a writer.”

There’s a saying in poker: If you look around the table and can’t tell who the rube is, it’s probably you. At this table, surrounded by other wannabe writers, I was the rube.

A few weeks later, despite the dissuasion of the workshop participants, I submitted two stories, “Voyagers” and “Icarus Again,” to the publisher of an anthology of nurse stories. Both were published. Encouraged by kindly, professional editors, my writing and artwork have been published nationally many times since. My first art exhibition, fresh out of art school, was favorably reviewed by a local art critic, which is more difficult to do than it sounds.

I am an artist and writer developing a body of work from my experiences as a registered nurse.

So there.

I think about this a lot when hooking up chemotherapy infusions to patients with advanced, metastatic cancers. Their prognosis is terrible. Though it’s impossible to know what I’d choose unless actually facing similar circumstances, sometimes I think I’d choose sitting on a tropical beach staring at the ocean until the end, and not spend my last few weeks or months in an oncology clinic fighting the odds. That’s when I remind myself that any patient perhaps belongs to that small statistic of people who survive or go into remission, allowing them one more birthday, one more Christmas celebration, a family wedding, or a grandchild’s graduation.

If there is no hope, then why am I an oncology nurse? Have we nurses witnessed so much human crisis that we’ve limited our capacity for dreams? Where lies the division between dreams and realism?

What are your thoughts? Which is the larger transgression: offering overly optimistic hope or being a gatekeeper? How is this idea reconciled with diminishing healthcare resources?


I Wish I’d Said It

A dream without a plan is only a wish.



She opened her life to possibility,

an adjusted outlook, scarcely perceptible to the casual observer.

The opening became a womb, and miracle of wonder:

A dream conceived in the small, dark, and quiet place.

Diminutive at first; one hardly had courage to hope for its survival.

But it rooted and nagged, and held its place,

that dream. It grew. The tiny dream in the quiet place,

which sparked its existence. A miracle of wonder.

A hope against almost not.

An expectant mother laughs

at her own joy, and the laughter floats to heaven,

an offering of gratitude to God.