Tools to Navigate Difficult Conversations

Spring 2016 As Seen in Our Spring 2016 Issue
Tools to Navigate Difficult Conversations

Tamryn Gray can empathize on end-of-life decisions

PhD student Tamryn Gray, MSN, RN, would like to talk with you about dying. And if her research as a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Future of Nursing Scholar takes her where she expects, that conversation could have significant meaning for both you and your loved ones.

Gray, who joined the PhD program after seven years as an oncology/bone marrow transplant nurse at Duke Children’s Hospital in Durham, NC, knows the challenges of watching pediatric patients and their families wrestle with end-of-life treatment decisions. She also knows the struggles of nurses to be a part of that process, to provide care, and to show empathy day after day without eventually burning out. “I wouldn’t say it’s a poker face,” Gray explains. “I would say that it’s a self-awareness, being able to know your limits, your boundaries, and what the patient needs and what you can provide. It’s a balance, because you want to be genuine.”

Photo by Will Kirk | Tamryn Gray, right, with Gertrude T. Hodges as Gray receives a scholarship established in Hodges’ honor.

That’s a message she shares with students as a teaching assistant for an elective course, Death and Dying, at the Hopkins School of Nursing. As for her own research area—patient and family treatment decision making related to cancer clinical trial participation—Gray is seeking ways to give nurses the skills to build trust and offer patients and those who support them the information and tools they need.

For example, “I’m hoping that by understanding what influences the decisions of minority patients to pursue clinical trials, we’ll be able to help eliminate a lot of health disparities for cancer and other illnesses. When patients are better informed, they make better decisions.”

Gray, who grew up in the small town of Graham, NC, says working on the edge of life and death can be as rewarding as it can be difficult. “It takes a unique person to do any job in nursing,” she says. “For me, these patients [and the challenges they face]  inspire me rather than scare me away.”

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