The biggest stressor for a person facing a life-limiting illness and for their loved ones is accepting that death may be approaching. Most people and their families want to be sure there are no more curative options left, and often the patient goes through procedures and treatments that do little to prolong life but may diminish its quality significantly.
For many people, considering it might be time for hospice care is the second biggest stressor following a terminal prognosis. If the patient or loved one proposes hospice, does that mean they’re giving up? Often people feel guilty about even thinking someone might die much less admitting it and preparing for it. However, as we all know, nobody lives forever, and when it becomes clear that an individual isn’t getting better and is moving toward death, the greatest kindness is to allow that person the dignity of deciding how they want to live out the rest of their life.
I want to tell you the story of how I came to know the blessing that is hospice. My husband was diagnosed with melanoma in October of 2008. He had surgery to remove a lesion (small tumor) on his scalp along with 57 lymph nodes in his neck. Four of those lymph nodes were cancerous. In May of 2009, it was determined the cancer had metastasized to his brain. His oncologist suggested he have surgery to remove the visible tumors in his brain, although this would have prolonged his life by only a few months at most. Those would have been months spent recovering from brain surgery, so my husband opted not to do it. He was given less than six months to live.
Within three months, my husband was unable to walk and was confined to bed. I knew I couldn’t tend to him by myself, and there was no family to help me, so I called hospice.
During the initial visit of the hospice nurse and home health aide, I felt I’d been sent God’s very own angels. The nurse, Kelly, explained that she’d be visiting twice a week, and the aide, Melodie, told me she’d be there three times a week to bathe my husband, wash his hair, and any other personal care he needed. Kelly immediately ordered medications to make my husband more comfortable, and they were delivered to the house within an hour. Melodie showed me how to easily change my husband’s bedding and diapers myself, which was remarkable to me, considering my husband was a large man. They hugged me and told me to call any time with concerns or questions.
The next day, the chaplain visited. She guided me through the anticipatory grief I was feeling at the thought of being without my husband. I cried and she consoled me. By the end of our time together, I felt that I’d come to terms with what was going to happen. From that point on, I was completely present for my husband, because I was no longer fighting what was happening to us. I accepted that he’d be leaving and vowed to make the most of every moment we had left together.
Within a week, my husband tried to get out of bed and ended up on the floor at 1 in the morning, unable to get up. There was no way I could wrestle him back into bed, so I called hospice. Within 20 minutes, help arrived in the form of the strapping female nurse who was on call (not Kelly) and, with a little of my help, we managed to safely get my husband back into bed. I literally wept in gratitude.
As promised, Kelly came twice a week and Melodie came three times. They were so gentle with my husband, who joked with them and thoroughly enjoyed their visits. Surprisingly, I felt our house filling with love and peace because of these caring people. Volunteers sat with my husband for several hours once a week so I could do errands.
Hospice also provided me with assistance and witnesses in preparing my husband’s will. They made this painful process as easy as it could be.
My husband passed just after 9 pm on October 21, 2009 as he slept beside me. I called Kelly and asked if she could wait until morning to send the funeral director for his body. She agreed. A friend and I did prayers for my husband through the night, bathed and oiled his body. I was given the time I needed to honor the gift of his presence in my life.
I became a hospice volunteer in May of 2010 and have remained one ever since. I’ve been present at the passing of several of my clients and other friends, and my gratitude at what hospice did for me in that most distressing time fuels my desire to be of assistance, especially to the spouse and family. Spending the end of our lives at home, in comfort and surrounded by loved ones, is a gift every one of us deserves.