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In all patients’ lives, spiritual, religious, or personal beliefs play a major role in decision-making surrounding healthcare options. Whether our beliefs lead us to seek the best medical help available, or to receive no treatment at all, each decision we make rests on our beliefs surrounding life and death. This is especially true when these decisions relate to end-of-life care. It can be so easy for medical professionals to attempt to separate themselves from their patients’ beliefs as an attempt to provide the best possible care to sustain life. However, the concept of “best possible care” lies in a gray area. As a rising professional in a health related field, I hope to one day pride myself in my ability to serve patients with the care that they believe is optimal for them, even if that means not receiving any care at all.
While I did not grow up in a strict religious home, I was raised in a spiritual environment. My parents explained life and death to me at an early age, emphasizing how both were part of the complicated and beautiful gift of being a member of this earth. I believe that death is simply an inevitable part of the process of living, and it is not to be feared but embraced as the next step after life. That being said, I have lost family members who were very close to me. Death is painful to witness, and that pain lingers long after the person has passed. Watching a family member pass away was not an easy process, but it was made easier by having physicians and therapists that respected their wishes, both medically and spiritually. When I am working in the field and happen to encounter patients who are near the end of life, I intend to listen to all aspects that may affect their decision-making and their coping skills with their illness. As I see it, there are no right or wrong answers to the questions surrounding death. That vagueness is the beauty of having a belief system; we are in control of our own beliefs and how we understand the world around us. As a clinician, it is my responsibility to use my education to provide insight on what might be possible choices for intervention while also providing more complex compassionate care outside of the realm of swallowing.
It is important to remember that we all have the right to decline treatment. If I am confronted with clients who wish not to receive swallowing or feeding assistance, that is their choice, and my beliefs surrounding the importance of this practice are irrelevant. If my client has religious beliefs that conflict with certain methods of treatment, I intend to discuss those beliefs thoroughly and attempt to find a treatment that does align with their belief system. As a speech-language pathologist, I intend to be fully present with my clients and support them in all aspects of their physical and/or emotional suffering. It is my responsibility to find what works for my client and their family. In order to truly accomplish this, I must adopt the beliefs of my client in order to gain a realistic perspective.
Death has been interpreted, questioned, analyzed, and feared since the beginning of mankind. There are so many ways to interpret the meaning of death and how to approach the process of dying. Being a speech-language pathologist will provide me with the opportunity to learn so much about the ways that we all respond to death and dying, and it will continually be an eye-opening experience that helps to support and redefine my own views. I look forward to serve my clients to the best of my ability using the dynamic combination of compassion and education. Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, put it nicely: “Helping, fixing, and serving represent three different ways of seeing life. When you help, you see life as weak. When you fix, you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life as whole. Fixing and helping may be the work of the ego, and service the work of the soul.”
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