Working as a nurse, doctor, or other medical professional at a hospital is never boring. From emergency room mishaps to long-term care struggles, there’s almost nothing they don’t see on a daily basis. But sometimes, a patient comes in with something that makes them stop in their tracks: A dying confession they’ll never forget.
1. Cruel To Be Kind
One of my friends witnessed a horrific and fatal accident where a driver crashed his truck on the side of the road. My friend rushed to the driver’s aid after calling an ambulance, and he ended up spending this man’s last moments with him. As they were waiting for the ambulance, even hearing it, the man asked after his wife, where she was, and said that he wanted to see her.
My friend tried to comfort the man as best he could, saying she was on her way. The man passed almost as soon as the ambulance arrived. Sometime afterward, my friend looked up this man on a social network, and he found out the heartbreaking truth. He discovered that this man’s wife was already passed. So he had said to the man that his late wife was on her way.
2. Hindsight Is 20/20
I was a hospice nurse. One of my elderly patients had skin cancer, a huge malignant melanoma on the side of his neck that was growing rapidly. He had been a farmer all his life and never married. One night we were talking and I asked him if there was anything he wished he had done differently in his life. He thought about it a minute and said he wished he had worn a hat when he was farming. I wish he did too.
3. Hand In Hand
It’s very hard to watch someone pass, but it’s also important to remember you’re doing it for them. I’ve always resented my older brother’s selfishness because his policy is essentially, “I don’t go visit people in the hospital because I don’t want to remember them that way.” But life isn’t just about YOU, now is it? It’s not just about what YOU want.
What about what the person in the hospital wants? My grandmother became very sick late last year and even when she became delirious, she would calm down when either my mom or I said, “It’s okay, we’re here…” She would just calm right down. Mom stayed in the hospital with her from the crack of dawn until 8 pm, and I took the night shift from 8 pm to 5 am, stayed all night so she was never alone.
When she got better and left the hospital, she told us that words couldn’t describe how much it meant to her that we did what we did; that we would never know just how much it meant to her. She said it saved her life. She said, “I would’ve been scared, but I wasn’t scared because every time I woke up, you were right there.” She said she knows she probably won’t be able to and won’t get the chance (due to her age), but she wishes more than anything that she could return the favor.
She said that if I were ever hospitalized, she would never leave my side. I tell you all this to say…I understand how hard it can be. I GET the temptation to be like my older brother and be like, “I don’t want to see them like this, it’s going to haunt me!” But when you understand how much it means to them, it’ll give you the strength to power through.
4. A Dog’s Life
I had a patient who I was in the room with when her doctor explained she only had a few weeks to live. I knew her well, and spent quite a bit of time talking to her up to the news. In the days that followed, she seemed to have accepted she was dying. She lived this beautiful, independent, and successful life, maybe not money successful, but just plain happy.
Anyways, when I was helping her to the tub on day 10 since receiving the news, she just broke down crying and couldn’t stop crying. What she told me made me nearly burst into tears on the spot. She talked about how much she wished she didn’t put her dog down, since they could have passed together. I guess she put her elderly dog down a few days before going into the hospital.
She knew her life was over, so she put him down first. She hated herself for it and for the fact she blew the opportunity for them to spend their last moments together. Really heartbreaking to watch, to hear that unfold. She passed early in the morning two days later. I took a couple of mental health days off after she passed and spent some time looking up dogs to adopt and new jobs to apply for.
5. Guardian Angel
My mom did home health and hospice. My stepdad mistreated us both and my mom would take me to work with her to try and protect me. She didn’t want to leave him due to religious beliefs. That’s a different story. In any case, at the hospital, there was an old man, and I’d play cards with him. We’d talk about working on the farm he had, and he was a nice guy.
He figured out I was being physically harmed during some of these talks. Eventually, his health started declining and he couldn’t play cards or get out of bed. The last time I saw him, he said he was sorry he wasn’t younger and that he couldn’t help me protect myself against my stepfather. That was almost 25 years ago and I still remember him. Honestly, he still feels like my guardian angel.
6. Too Young To Go
I worked as an oncology nurse right out of nursing school. I was barely 21 years old. I had a patient about my age who had terminal lung cancer. A few hours before he passed, I sat with him, and he was telling me how much he wished that he would have had more time to maybe fall in love, marry, have kids. He was so young. He asked me to call his parents and he passed shortly after they arrived.
It was awful. His regrets were more about the life not lived. Many older patients, meanwhile had some interesting life stories and most wanted to tell them before they passed. Most were at peace with the life they lived. Many regretted working so much and not spending enough time with family, but they also had other stories. He simply didn’t.
7. Let It Go
Some people just want you to let them go. I had a man with terminal cancer break down crying after his daughters left the room because they wanted him to “keep fighting” and he just wanted to rest and pass peacefully. Learn when to let go.
8. Regrets, I’ve Had A Few
I was a new nurse, flying solo. We got a call for an incoming trauma; it was a woman in her 50s involved in a multi-car accident. We were all ready at the ambulance bay, unsure of the woman’s complete condition. She rolled in breathing on her own, but very labored and with asymmetrical chest expansion. She was profusely bleeding, had multiple deep lacerations, pupils blown, debris covering most of her, etc.
Her vitals were unstable, she was circling the drain, and we knew she was on the verge of coding. I was standing near her head, ready to assist in supporting her airway but also providing comfort and doing my best to calm her. The woman looked me directly in the eyes and in a hoarse, labored voice stated, “I was angry, I told her I was disappointed in her.”
She began to cry, her vitals plummeted. “I’m sorry,” was the last thing she said before her heart stopped. We coded her, intubated her, performed round after round of ACLS, only to eventually have to call time. I still see her face at times, her eyes filled with more emotional pain than physical. It took much longer and was so much harder to write this than I thought it would be…
9. Be Grateful For What You Have
I’m a paramedic, and I made a run on a woman in her 30s for shortness of breath. Her and her boyfriend had just moved into an apartment together. They were fighting over something trivial, which room to unpack first or something. He thought she was just being dramatic when she suffered the attack. We transported her, but she never made it.
She went from awake and talking to unresponsive and asystolic (no cardiac activity) in a matter of seconds. They were so caught up in a little argument that they never said goodbye. They never told each other they loved each other. So, she didn’t have any last words. And honestly, that’s even worse.
10. Burned Bridges
I work in long-term care, and a majority of my patients are men. A LOT of the men regret their marriage. Also, one patient had a psychotic breakdown in his 50s. He’s in his mid-70s and in hospice now, and says his entire family hasn’t talked to him since. All he knows is “words were said and I burned all my bridges.” He doesn’t even really know what happened.
11. Pay It Forward
I worked in a GI lab and we had a much older man, in his late 70s probably, maybe late 80s, in for gastrointestinal issues. While doing the procedure, we found cancer. But it was even worse than that. It was completely inoperable, just no chance of survival. Super bad, and I think he had refused to have a colonoscopy up until this point.
The doctor said it was so horrific that we couldn’t get even get past the cancer in our probe. He said the guy had maybe a few months. We finish up and I am at bedside with the patient and the doctor comes in to talk. Well, the family wouldn’t believe it. In fact, the guy wouldn’t even believe it. At that point, the doctor backed down…and omitted telling them how bad it really was.
I was pretty upset because the doctor basically lied to the family and gave them false hope because they wouldn’t stop arguing and he just didn’t care to tell them the truth. I still wonder often about what happened to him. If he spent his last days fighting it and wearing himself out or if he let himself enjoy his last few months. Colon cancer is horrific.
It looks exactly like the word cancer. It’s disgusting. It looks alien. Please, please, please people, get your colonoscopy when you are told. It’s not just you that you are saving, it’s your kids who will get their screenings earlier if they find something in you. But if you don’t, they’ll never know they are at risk. Also: Listen to and believe your doctors.
12. Follow Your Heart
I used to be a nursing student, though I decided to drop out in my second year because it wasn’t where my heart was. During my placement at the city hospital, I got to talking to an older man—he must have been like 88 then. He was talking about how I look exotic and always complimented my long hair etc., etc. For what it’s worth, I was never threatened or put off by it.
One day, he told me I looked like the woman he wished he never let go. He said that he was completely happy about how his life turned out, loved his family and late wife, but he always thinks about this one woman he shouldn’t have let go by. He described this woman and his relationship with her as the perfect little blip in his life.
She was a petite Indian woman (I am a petite Pakistani woman) with long black hair and the most amazing smile. They met when he was 18 and she was 16. He was a jock at college and realized that her brother was taking the same classes as him, so he befriended the “dorky Indian guy” to get to his sister, who worked at the grocery store in town (that’s how they met).
And it worked! They dated for six months before she randomly broke it off. It turned out, she was just uncertain about where their relationship would go and could go as an interfaith and interracial couple. The old man wished he fought harder, because her brother married a Chinese woman and if it weren’t for his “jocky dumb attitude” he would have “gotten over” her decision to end things and fought harder for her to understand it would be all right.
Decades later, this petite, longhaired girl with an “amazing smile” (me) comes back into his life and he was flooded with the memories of the love of his life. He said the six months they were together were just the most deep and loving and peaceful months of his life. He should have been with her and she was the one who got away.
He said back then, you would fall in love in weeks and you loved hard, and that was simply that. Years later, I met a guy at work who ended up moving across the country for work. I remembered this old man and followed my heart. I never let my love get away, and I married him this summer. You should always at least try. Even if it doesn’t work out, go for it and find out so you never wonder.
13. Young And In Love
I worked in long-term care for 12 years. I remember a married couple that shared a room; she had cancer and kidney failure. I was helping her eat lunch one day with her husband sitting there with us. She looked awful, but her husband looked at her, then at me, and said, “Have you ever seen a more beautiful woman?” I had to leave and go to the bathroom and cry.
I cried for days every time I thought of what he said. I thought I would never know what it was like to be loved like that. At the time, I had been divorced for years. I couldn’t even tell the story just now without tearing up. Side note: I was divorced for 23 years when I met Rod. We’ve been together for 11 years. I know that love now. It’s never too late.
14. You Can’t Save Them All
I had a teenage girl in my psych ward because she had tried to kill herself by overdosing with pills. It was touch and go, but she was revived and admitted. When her parents could come in and see her once she was awake, their reunion was heart-wrenching. She was ugly crying about how sorry she was for taking the pills and how she didn’t want to end things.
Her parents were sobbing and telling her it was okay and they loved her. And then later they all went home and we didn’t see them again…And that’s the way I need to tell that story to prevent myself from breaking down and not being able to work there anymore. Because later, I read the Coroner’s Report for her passing a few years later, from a later suicide attempt that was successful.
They concluded that “no combination of interventions or specialists could have prevented” it. It felt like I got physically punched reading that. Still hurts.
15. You Never Forget Your First
He was one of my first patients as a nursing student, named Frank. He was 92. After knowing him a few days, he disclosed to me his regret was outliving everyone he loved, that he and his wife hadn’t had kids, and he was “all that was left” and that he wanted to see his wife again. I wasn’t sure how to respond, so I just listened. It made me realize how living so long isn’t great if everyone you love is gone.
He passed later that week, and while I distinctly recall some of my classmates being upset, I felt relief for him. I knew he was where he wanted to be. I’ve had many patients since, but you tend to remember your first ones.
16. A Soft Spot
I worked security in a hospital. In the ER, we had to sit with any 5150 patients so they wouldn’t escape. In California, that’s a threat to others, threat to self, and/or gravely disabled. It’s a legal hold that they can’t leave. I had I think a 17-year-old girl who came in on a Tylenol overdose. I normally don’t listen or really even get invested with patients because it’s usually the same faces on a loop, but she kept trying to strike up a conversation.
Eventually, I relented and she told me how stupid she was. Apparently, it was over a boy and where she was going to go to college and what she wanted to do. Basically, her life story. Taking a break to cry for a second. I left and she was stable in the ER. The next day, I came in and asked if she went home or if she was in an inpatient unit. They told me she passed a few hours after my shift.
It’s been like five years and thinking about it, I start crying like a baby. I don’t cry. I think the last time I cried other than this was my grandpa passed, but even that I can discuss without crying now. Her story is the only thing that completely breaks me down.
17. Always More To See
“Not yet! I can’t go yet. I still have so much growing to do. I want to see my children and grandchildren grow up…” I am a physician trainee who has done a decent amount of palliative care. I have been privileged to hear many stories and be part of many ends, but I still can’t explain why it is that certain lines remain with me and hit me so much harder.
The gentleman who told me the line above was in his late 60s-early 70s. It made me reflect on how I view patients in this age group. Yes, much older than myself, but still with growing and living to do. I also think of a woman in her 50s I met early on in my training. She and her female partner had never married—partly due to laws, partly because it had never seemed important.
When she was diagnosed with metastatic pancreatic cancer, they regretted never making that step. I attended their small wedding in the hospital. She passed a few days later.
18. The One That Got Away
I’ve been a nurse for 14 years, and the one thing that still hits me is a 14-year-old boy fighting cancer. We did the transplant but he eventually passed fighting the side effects of that transplant. Before that, I’d nursed him for almost a year and we had grown very close. The day he went away to his home country in the US, I told him I am his big momma and when he returned, we would be together seeing through many plans.
His dream was to be a doctor, so I told him I would quit my job and be his nurse the moment he becomes a doctor. On the night before he and his family left, my husband, who is a chef, cooked his favorite foods for the family and all the nurses. My husband taught my patient how to cook the recipes too, since my patient also loves to cook.
We had dinner together and I was crying my eyes out afterward. He was like a second son to me. His last words to me were, “I will make sure to meet you again.” The day I found out from his mother he had passed, I was devastated.
19. You Are What You Eat
I work in a hospital delivering trays to patients. I’ve had multiple patients who have requested a final meal, only to be gone by the time I get it up to them. I haven’t heard their last words, but I think seeing what their last meal would have been says a lot on its own.
20. Born This Way
I’m an ex-ICU nurse. I had a patient in his 40s once pass from AIDS-related complications. At the end, he developed an acute lung infection, and the time that my colleagues and I looked after him was during the span while he was rapidly failing. We had to intubate, but he quickly became comatose and passed within a couple of days despite all the treatment.
He came from a religious family, but was estranged due to his homosexuality. He found religion again when he realized he didn’t have long to live, and it breaks my heart that he had convinced himself God was punishing him for being gay. Me and my colleagues tried our best, but his belief and his regret was a lifetime-deep, and our time with him was so short.
I will never forget being at his bedside, he’s gasping for air, with him telling me desperately between breaths how this is his punishment from God and he DESERVED it. He passed before we had a chance to even help him, I feel.
21. Tough Talks
This is difficult for me to talk about. I’m an ICU nurse and I’ve been present for a lot of people’s end of life. The reason it is so difficult to discuss is surprisingly simple: People come into ICU, they get put on a ventilator (which involves a tube in the trachea, through the vocal cords), and then they can’t speak. Depending on the medications they require, they aren’t commonly conscious, either.
So the communication happens before the ventilator, and either a) they didn’t have time to express ideas about regrets due to the urgency at the time or b) they didn’t think it was time to express those ideas…they thought there would be more life, more opportunities. The problem is that they didn’t tell any family members or loved ones, either, prior to coming in.
So I come on to a shift several days later. I don’t actually know this person. I haven’t heard their voice, or their ideas. What I have heard about my patient is from their visitors, the loved ones and the family. But what I’m doing with my day is trying to remind those same people that under the tubing, behind the equipment and the medication (that are the bread and butter of my job), under the blanket and on the bed is their loved one.
The person is the point. But we also tend the machines. Machines for breathing, machines for making the heart keep pace, machines helping to reduce the effort a tired heart needs to pump, machines to do the work of the failing kidney, machines to remove the need for the tiny spaces left in diseased lungs to push more gas than they can ever hope to move.
And we tend to use meds. Meds that assist the machines. Meds that push the body to do what it no longer can. And the patient moves from day to night and back to day. And the family wants us to do one more thing. And another. Because they want their person back. Sometimes we can do that. We can give you your person for more time together at life.
Sometimes we can’t. And if you’ve ever wanted to know about the regrets of terminal patients, these are the regrets many people can never express. The regret that they weren’t able to tell their loved ones and families they didn’t want all the things. Maybe some of the things, for a while. But not all of them, until the end. The regret that the loved ones and families want to help, but as the patient, they physically could not tell them no, don’t do that, it’s not helping.
So I guess the point is this: Don’t wait until you are there. Have a conversation with your significant others about what you want to happen if the worst happened. Don’t put it off as having bad thoughts or ideas or even that it’ll invoke some sort of fate that wasn’t otherwise going to happen. Discuss organ donation as if you really had the chance to do it.
Let your loved ones know what you think, and leave your actual end of life regrets for stuff like not going to Disneyland that time, or spending too much time driving to work.
22. Just Say No
I use to work in the respiratory ward of a hospital almost a decade ago. I was young and everything and occasionally took a puff of smoke from my friends when we were out drinking. Only a few times, to be honest. One of my terminal patients held my hand one day, she was out of breath and I was trying to just be there to calm her down and give some reassurance.
She told me to never, ever smoke. She regretted doing it when she was young, as now she is dying because of it. She hated it because of all the damage. She described it as drowning, and said that when you are being choked, that sensation that you are losing your breath is just absolutely terrifying and the worst. Her words stuck with me, and in her final days, we kept her as comfortable as we could as she struggled to breathe.
She passed not too long after. Never forgot her advice. Never took another puff.
23. Love And Time
I was diagnosed with T-cell lymphoma on my birthday in 2016, and I was told if my chemotherapy didn’t work, I had just weeks to live in 2017. Up until that point, I didn’t think I wasn’t going to beat it, even though by then I’d gone through 14 + rounds of different types and brutal chemotherapy. It seems stupid now, thinking back, but until the doctor uttered those words I hadn’t even done my will yet.
None of us were expecting it, and being honest I was in shock. I was 34 or 35, and this wasn’t how my story was meant to end. The doctor promised he would help as much as he could to transition me to palliative care and get the ball rolling. This bowled me over. I mean, one moment I’m preparing for another “ran some tests, here’s what we found, here’s what were going to do” doctor’s meeting, a meeting I have almost every day…the next I’m just…silent.
Anger was my first stage. I was bitter. “Why me? What did I ever do to deserve such a poor hand? Screw the world and its happy existence…” This quickly left. It was, honestly, one minute of pure “Why me?” After looking at everyone’s faces, however, this quickly left me. I simply watched everyone deal with the news around me. In the room was my favorite nurse, my mom, wife, and obviously the doctor.
I never saw my mom look so helpless. I could almost see the hope drain from her as she leaned into the wall, hoping for support. She was just told her baby was going to go and this time she couldn’t fix it. I could see the whirlwind inside her as she tried to not cry. The nurse who was there was only there to give me more chemotherapy. At this point in my care, I’d been in hospital for months.
I’d see her almost every day, and you bond. She didn’t take the news well (I heard later on). At the time, I was told she had a reaction to the chemotherapy she was administering. In reality, she broke down and had to leave work early. My darling wife, who I had put through so much, was clearly trying to hold it together…she was in the anger and bargaining stage, too.
This was the first time seeing my wife not taking “no” as an answer, and I didn’t have the energy or the motivation to calm her down. She was asking for second opinions, researching other hospitals, calling/emailing them, scanning reports, test results for her emails, etc. She just refused to accept it and went to work. I just sat there with what felt like billions of thoughts, watching it all go on around me.
When you’re told you’re going to die, eventually you get to acceptance. Once I accepted there was nothing more to do, all the little things in life that annoy, stress, or anger you go away. EVERYTHING is beautiful…and I noticed everything. My perspective had completely changed. My time was running out and I just wanted to be surrounded by love. That’s it.
My only regret was time. I didn’t do enough with it. I didn’t have more time to see my beautiful baby niece grow up. I wondered if she would take after her mother, my lovely sister, who never got to enjoy her pregnancy due to her brother getting cancer months before she was due to give birth. Why did I waste so much time being angry at my father?
We wasted so much time ignoring each other over petty family stuff. Why the heck didn’t I travel more? Why didn’t I take more photos of us when traveling? I had tons of travel pictures over the years, but hardly any of me and my wife or my family enjoying the holiday…just holiday-like pictures of museums, buildings, and food. Now I’m on heavy meds scrambling my brain for memories of my wife’s face when she saw the view from our hotel in Croatia.
Going through cancer robbed us of joy, and I just wanted to see the twinkle of happiness in the eyes of my loved ones one more time. Love and time, that’s it. When it boils down to it, that’s all that’s left. Love and time.
24. Don’t Go It Alone
I’ll never forget my time working as an ER EMT when I helped a woman get on a commode. I told her I’d give her some privacy and she grabbed my hand and murmured out a “please stay.” I asked her what was wrong and if she was okay. While she was sobbing, she was able to break out, “I’m so scared. They just told me I’m dying and don’t have a chance anymore.”
It broke my heart. I stayed and talked with her for a little and comforted her as best I could.
25. You Can’t Take It With You
As a medical student at Stanford, I got to see some “VIP” patients. One, in particular, was a middle-aged, high-ranking executive at an iconic company. This person was terminally ill and I was tasked with the initial interview. During my history-taking, they spoke about the ride up the corporate ladder. It all seemed worthwhile at the time—chasing wealth and prestige.
In the end, however, their regret was walking away from opportunities to build a family and invest in meaningful relationships. They poured their soul into the company, and yet not a single soul could spare the time to visit them in the hospital. I still remember them in the hospital bed, staring out the window with a blank expression. It haunted me for a while but helped me change my focus, especially in an area and field full of high-achievers.
26. Not In His Right Mind
I had an accident and ended up with a concussion and emergency spinal surgery. Once I got to the hospital, the surgeon quickly went through all the things that could go wrong so I was aware. He said something like, “And with every surgery, there’s a very small chance of death.” All my brain heard was, “You’re 100% gonna bleed out.” After that, I just had this very clear realization through the confusion of the concussion that I didn’t tell my brother that I loved him enough.
So I called him with, like, 2% battery on my phone and told him to move on without me and live his life to the fullest, and I’ll always be proud of him. Yeah, surgery went absolutely fine and when I came round, he just joked, “Even though you survived, I can still live my life to the fullest, right? It wasn’t an either/or situation?” I obviously told him he couldn’t.
27. A Laughing Matter
The one I remember most is a sweet elderly lady who I’d been caring for. She’d been through so much in her life and spent so much of it worrying about everything. The night before she passed, we sat and talked for a while about anything and everything. I asked her if she could do it all again, would she do anything different? Straight away she told me she wished she had laughed more.
Such simple words, but they had a big impact on my life.
28. The Big Sleep
I’ve been in medicine for 13 years now. I was working in a progressive care unit taking care of a young guy who was about 22 at the time, when I was also 22. I thought he looked like one of my buddies from back home. He was jaundiced, in liver failure from alcoholism, and going downstairs for a CT scan. Total care. My age, expiring from alcoholism.
He looked at me in the eyes and said, “I’m tired of this.” There was an exhausted sincerity in his voice. I think I just nodded and said, “I know, man.” He coded on the CT scanner when he went down. I’ll never forget the look in his eyes, and his voice when he told me he was tired of it all. It was like he gave up. It was a resignation to his life, and all the regrets of drinking and destroying himself all in that brief last statement.
Those few words said a lot. I’ve been around a lot of terminally ill people. I’m a paramedic working full time in a busy ER the last few years. I’ve worked in oncology, a level 1 trauma ICU, a burn unit—but I just remember that kid for some reason, and those last words. I never had an issue with drinking, and thanks to him I don’t think I ever will.
29. Everybody’s Got A Story
A 27-year-old man tried to end his life and passed from his injuries. I still remember it clearly; he told me his entire life story. I didn’t sleep for a few days after hearing it and sometimes it still haunts me to this day. He was brutally teased in middle school straight until the end of high school. He had mild Aspergers and was quite intelligent but because of his looks and weird mannerisms, he was picked on. Then it got worse.
The girls would make him drink out of the toilet, the guys would chokehold him until he passed out or tie him up inside the gym so he woke up alone after school ended, only to go home and get beaten by his parents for being late. The girls would often make up fake accusations and he’d be suspended, only to be beaten up by his parents once more.
The guys would take his clothes and toss them in the dumpster, only for him to go crawling in it while naked. The girls would replace his lunch with rotten food, the guys would pelt him with rocks. It was just unbelievable. He finished high school but just barely, dropped out of college, and left home to go into the service industry. But it only got worse for him there as he couldn’t do well with the stress.
He had his own issues. He said he was one of those incels and his only reason for living was so that others could hurt him to make themselves feel better. He told me he tried to end it because he was tired of living and also financially broken by then. He said he wished he stood up for himself from the start, and perhaps things would have turned out differently for him.
He passed a few days later while I was off shift. We all knew inside that he wasn’t going to make it from the start given his injuries, but I still listened to the story. I hope he’s at peace now.
30. Go For It
One that always stuck hard with me was my preceptor when I first became a nurse telling me she was going to travel the world as soon as she retired. She was about four years away at that point, and she had spent her whole life devoted to being the nice Church lady/nurse after her husband passed in their 20s. She just never put herself first.
My second year into nursing, she fainted in the parking lot on her way into work and soon after got diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. She recently passed and never had the strength to travel. I remember telling my introverted self at that point that I didn’t want to just work and pass away and have regrets. I wanted to live my life to the fullest.
Here I am now working as a travel nurse in Curacao and living a life I never dreamed of.
31. For God And Country
I’m a chaplain in hospitals and hospices. Doing everything we can to reconcile people before they pass is a large portion of my work. I have a lot of stories. Regrets naturally are expressed at end of life because people want to close their narratives and they are reflecting on everything they’ve lived. This doesn’t have to be scary or heartbreaking; it’s often natural and a way to end things with beauty.
However, the worst confessions and regrets I’ve heard came from veterans. Some never regret actions done in conflict and have a chain of command. This was the “I was following orders” mentality that can go all the way up to how they perceive God. One man was recruited to the CIA and asked them, “So I guess you’ll have me killing people.” He tells me they responded: “We call it ‘target acquisition’ now.”
The man never had a family because the CIA warned him to keep away from relational ties. He didn’t have any regrets as he was going about any of this. The one that sticks out to me the most, though, is a man who was an American soldier who became a German POW, and was eventually liberated by the Russians. He said the Russians freed them, but did little else and they were left to fend for themselves until US could extract them.
His biggest regret? That he took things from the corpses so he could have clothes and money to buy food. He bartered for food with valuables he retrieved from his late brothers in arms. He knows it was for survival, but he couldn’t come to forgive himself, which led to his second regret—he wished he died instead of his brother who was slain in action, also during WWII.
The important lesson isn’t to focus on the regrets, it’s to live a life now of love, acceptance, and mending bridges because you don’t know when it’ll be your time to tie loose ends.
32. He’s A Riot
I had a patient tell me that if he could go back for just one more day, he’d sleep with his wife even just one more time. I admit, I laughed when he said this, but he went on to tell me about their relationship and how beautiful she was. He was a sailor and admitted that he spent many nights with many different women around the world, but something about her made him settle down and get serious.
When they were first married, he’d come home from work and would find her naked in the kitchen and they would just go at it like rabbits. He told me to go home and surprise my husband by doing the same and to name our firstborn after him, ha. My last day working with him, he looked me in the eye and said: “Money is nothing, it’s all about the poon. Pardon my French, young lady.”
33. Family Reunion
When my grandmother was on her deathbed, she gave a shocking confession. She told her oldest son that he actually had an older sister somewhere back in their home country. She gave birth out of wedlock (not sure with my grandfather or not) and gave her away. My grandmother said she regretted not telling her kids and keeping a family relationship away from them.
My family ended up finding the girl a year or so after my grandmother passed. Some of my aunts and uncles even went to go visit her back home.
34. There But For The Grace Of God Go I
One that stuck with me: I was young, 21 maybe, and I had a nice old man in my ambulance. He had his hair slicked back and he was wearing a nice shirt. I honestly don’t remember what was wrong with him, or the other stuff that we talked about, but he stopped abruptly at one point and told me, almost kind of sternly: “Hey kid, stay out of the slammer, trust me.”
Now, I wasn’t really in danger of going behind bars the time, although I wasn’t that far out of danger either, but it stuck with me. Here was this guy who realized he could be a perfectly decent human being. He could be of value to people. But he could only do that if he wasn’t stuck rotting away in a cell. He must have wasted years of his good, precious, life in there and he didn’t want to see me do the same.
I realized I’d be an old man too someday, and I didn’t want to risk time just to make a few extra bucks as a starving college kid.
35. A Promise Is A Promise
I can tell you what I regret from my first experience with a patient who later passed. I’m a nurse, was working ICU at the time, and was freshly coming off orientation with about 1.5 years total nursing experience at the time, so not quite a rookie. Anyway, I had a patient one hour after my shift have severe difficulty breathing. After consulting the doctor, we decided to intubate and were getting ready to start the procedure.
The woman had widened panic in her eyes, and before we gave her a sedative for when she went out, I told her, “Don’t worry dear you can relax. We can do the breathing for you.” This seemed to calm her some, and then we sedated her and did the procedure. It started going south. Her pressure started dropping, even after we put her on a cocktail of medications. I sat in her room the entire time and did any charting I could at her bedside, since alarms would constantly be going off.
This went on until 2 pm, when the family came and decided to take her off the ventilator as she had a poor prognosis. She passed a little bit later. I will always regret telling her not to worry, that we would do the breathing for her. Because in the end, we couldn’t. I just regret that I couldn’t fulfill my promise to her. So my advice to any of the younger ones in health care, don’t make a promise you don’t know for certain you can keep.
36. Together Again
I’ve worked in both long-term care and oncology/palliative care. The biggest lesson I learned from someone was to love your loved ones as long as you can and as hard as you can. This resident’s wife had passed years ago, but he still wrote her love letters every day. When he was about to pass, the environmental services team put a picture of her on his ceiling so he could look at her all day long.
I fed him his last meal (a few bites of soup), about six hours before he passed on my second last day of work there. That was a tough one. Other lessons: Stay single for as long as you can, travel as much as you can, and don’t get old.
37. When It’s Time, It’s Time
The passings with a bed full of family and an alert, fighting patient are the hard ones. The hardest one, emotionally, I’ve been graced to be a part of was a 50ish-year-old man with very bad pulmonary fibrosis. He had a “Do Not Intubate” order, so we weren’t supposed to ventilate him. It’s near impossible to ventilate with severe pulmonary fibrosis anyway, and the patient was well educated on his sickness and the severity of it.
The kids were all in their mid-20s, so around my age at the time. They were begging me and the doctor to do more, all while their dad basically suffocated without a ventilator. The dad was alert, showering his kids with love and calmness, and it was hard not to put myself in their shoes. Same age as me, and he was the same age as my dad.
This stuff sticks with you. Emotionally, that is a top three for me.
38. Can Nothing More Be Done?
In the experiences I have had, the patient is usually too preoccupied with his own pain or suffering to actually say a regret. However, there have been plenty of experiences where I’ve had a lot of regret and which sometimes still wake me up from sleep even though they are 10-year-old stories. The regrets are not related to a mistake I made, but rather about “maybe I could have done more.”
10 years back, I lost an 18-year-old female patient who had come into the hospital in a critical state. I was working in a very busy, overburdened hospital in a developing country. She was an only daughter and I still remember her parents. The father had told me something along the lines of, “She’s our only daughter, please do whatever is possible to save her.”
She had a sudden collapse and went. I’ve asked numerous colleagues and seniors since then about what more I could have done to save her, and they’ve all said that nothing more could have been done. But I still feel that I should have left everything and just sat with the patient the whole night, watching for any catastrophe to hit. It is my one huge regret of my life.
I blame myself even though I can’t fathom what more I could have done. It took me four years to tell this story to my wife. And this is probably only the third or fourth occasion in the last 10 years that I’m mentioning this. But it stays with me.
39. Bedside Manner
A huge learning experience came while I was a student and was treating a patient with advanced breast cancer. She was extremely cheerful and lit up the whole ward. I had a good connection with her as well. One day during the rounds, she pulled me aside and asked me a question that has haunted me since. She asked, “Do you think it will be cured?”
The doctors senior to me had already done her counseling, and as far as I knew she already knew her terminal prognosis. So I said the honest thing: “No, you cannot be cured.” She suddenly pulled back, smiled, and told me, “Never, ever say that to a patient, doctor. Never tell them it won’t be cured.” It was a learning experience for me. It’s not so much about not telling people the truth, but rather never taking hope from them.
Always give hope. Yes, tell them the chances and truth and whatever, but always give them hope. That statement has redefined how I talk to my patients.
40. Seeking Absolution
When I was in nursing school, there was a patient I had who was a Jewish man from Ukraine. He was sent to a concentration camp by the Germans where he had to take food from a child so that he and his family could survive. He was 15. It has haunted him his whole life, and as he was about to pass, he started to hallucinate that I was the boy and begged me for forgiveness.
I said, “I forgive you,” and he just went. There were a few people in the room, but I was the only Russian speaker and for whatever reason, that made it extra intense.
41. Motherly Love
I’m a nurse in the elderly ward. When a patient had recently passed, she kept calling for her son. But there was one tragic problem. Her son had been there, but the first thing he asked me was “When can I get a death certificate?” I couldn’t believe it. I was like, “Well, she isn’t gone yet, for starters, and that isn’t the top priority.” I explained how we’ve kept her comfortable and told him the staff was looking after her.
About five minutes after this conversation he left. I was fuming. Me and one of the doctors spent the day in the room with her, making sure someone was with her at all times even though she cried for her son. She passed as we were handing her over to the new shift. No word of a lie it was a two-minute changeover, and she went. It was like she knew she was alone and her son wasn’t there, so she passed alone. That breaks my heart.
42. Old Married Couple
I’ve been a nurse for 12 years in the ICU and PACU. The PACU is where you go after surgery to recover from anesthesia before going home or being moved to an inpatient room. What’s stuck with me most is how older married people act when they wake up. So many older women wake up from anesthesia after major surgery and ask me how their husband is doing, explain that he can’t drive well in the dark, and are worried that he didn’t eat.
They tell me to send them home so they can stop worrying about them. But so many older men wake up and cry for their wife, wanting her to be there with them. A few times, outright sobbing about how they’ve treated their wife in the past.
43. Unlucky Larry
I had a co-worker named “Larry” who was in a job-site accident. Basically, he was underneath some scaffolding when a vehicle backed into it, and it collapsed on top of him. He was pinned down, couldn’t feel his legs, and was bleeding from a head wound. Larry was 100% convinced that this was the end. We were trying to pull the scaffold off and render first aid and all that, and he kept asking to use a phone to call his wife “Suzie.”
Our supervisor gave him a phone, and Larry called Suzie and confessed to having multiple affairs, taking money from Suzie’s parents, creeping on their neighbor’s teenage daughter, and partying with Suzie’s sister. Larry was crying, telling her he was so sorry, begging for forgiveness. And then the other shoe dropped. Turns out Larry was just pinned down by a couple of tubes and bracers that fell together just right, and it was tight enough to pinch a nerve and slow his circulation a bit.
He got six stitches on his head and some bruises, and that was the extent of his physical injuries. He survived and made a full recovery. However, he did lose his house, his pickup truck, custody of his kids, and half his paycheck to child support and alimony in the divorce. Plus, he got written up for not wearing a hard hat under scaffolding.
44. The Silver Lining
I’m a hospice social worker, so I have the honor of getting to listen to peoples’ life stories, including favorite memories and regrets. Most regrets center around what they didn’t get to do, like never traveling to Italy when their family was originally from Naples. Some regret not getting specific education—wanting to go to college but never doing it.
Some regret their choice in partner, especially when mistreatment was involved, or cheating. Many express a sadness that looks a lot like regret if they are estranged from family, and some have anticipatory grief from knowing they will miss a milestone, like the birth of a grandchild. Some regret not taking better care of their health. In general, though, life is long and time smoothes some of the rough edges, so people tend to focus on the good.
45. Dog Eat Dog
I worked in hospice. The top regret from patients was not spending time with family and/or lost time due to a family feud. Probably number two was wasting their life with their spouse (for various reasons) when they could have possibly been with someone they loved or met a soul mate. Number three was usually not accomplishing a bucket list item such as living in a foreign country.
We were not supposed to let people bring their pets in to say goodbye, since other people could have allergies or an untrained pet could poop somewhere. Still, I always told family members to smuggle in Fluffy in an oversized purse, Paris Hilton style. Large dogs were harder, but since they were literally emotional support animals at the time, I never told them to leave.
46. If I Could Turn Back Time
He wished he had been a better father to his daughter. He wished they had reconnected. But there was an even more tragic side to this confession. His dementia prevented him from remembering they had reconnected years before and that she visited often. I wish I could have made him aware that he had accomplished his last wish. But he passed not really understanding that.
47. Gone But Not Forgotten
I remember this 40-year-old patient who I had was perishing from breast cancer that spread throughout her body. She was diagnosed with breast cancer 10 years earlier and had a mastectomy. The doctor recommended for her to have a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction due to the high risk of recurrence of cancer. She said that she wanted to keep her breast (a real breast rather than an implant) in case she remarries so she will be somewhat “whole.”
She very much regretted not getting the bilateral mastectomy. If she did, she would not have gotten cancer in her remaining breast and be facing mortality at such a young age. Also, the patient never ended up marrying after all. Then, a week later, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I instantly told the doctor that I want a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction.
I also had an aggressive form of cancer. My doctor kept pushing a lumpectomy, which I probably wouldn’t have gotten before I heard how much she regretted her decision. I feel that she actually saved my life sharing and opening up with her biggest regret of all time. I was 48 years old at the time of my diagnosis and have been cancer-free for 10 years now.
I think of that lady often. She was a mother of five. She was a true blessing to me. She was my last patient on my last shift prior to getting my results and starting chemo. If it wasn’t for her, I know I would not be here.
48. Pet The Squirrel
I’m an EMT. Most patients that I see in my ambulance are too sick to talk in these cases, but one sticks with me. He was a male in his mid-40s, and he called us for chest pain. Turns out, he was in the middle of a massive heart attack. The saddest part of all of it was that the patient had medical training, so he knew that it wasn’t good.
We were screaming to the hospital, just speeding down the road, and he looked me right in the eyes and goes, “I should have eaten that freaking cake.” When I asked what he meant, he told me, “Screw what others think. If it makes you happy do it, eat the cake, pet a squirrel, take a nap. Screw anyone else, it doesn’t matter.” He crashed shortly after we got to the ER and didn’t come back.
Now at least if I want to do something purely for the fun of it and my wife asks why I want to, all I have to say is, “I want to pet the squirrel.”
49. If Not Now, When?
This was a weird one for me and actually apropos for my current life. I still think about her. This happened maybe six or seven years ago. She was an older female in her 70s with a history of breast cancer. At that point, she was in the ICU for sepsis, I believe. I talked to her and she mentioned she was widowed. I gave my condolences and stated “That’s hard, I’m sorry about your loss. I imagine you miss him.” Her response shocked me.
To my surprise, she told me, “No, actually I don’t. I was relieved when he went. I was never happy with him. I didn’t leave him because that’s not what we did back in the day. So here I wasted many years with a man who didn’t treat me well, and now I have cancer.” Oof. Life lesson folks.
50. I Think We’re Alone Now
Nearly all the patients I’ve had in ICU didn’t really have to ability to speak by the time they were my patient. I did have one lady who was going out relatively slowly, and I do remember her saying to me that she regretted how boring her life was and how she wasted it doing nothing but being a housewife. But there was a huge twist.
She said this all in front of her adult kids while they sat there, mortified and hurt.