A career hospice nurse tells us about one of her most treasured experiences.
As the leaves fell on that brisk October night and the smell of wood-burning permeated through the air, I sat on the front porch of a home listening to the surrounding laughter. Any passerby would have thought there was a party inside. The driveway was lined with cars and songs of a time long since passed was being sung. As I peered into the front window, I saw the smiles of the gathered people surrounding a hospital bed, and in that bed was a man called husband, father, brother, uncle, cousin and friend. I called him amazing.
Bill was born in a small midwest town. He was of a proud Irish descent, a devout catholic, served his country during a time of war, married his childhood sweetheart and together they raised a family. He was not a superhero, a movie star, or a famous athlete. He was the husband that provided for his family, the father seen at all of the school functions, and the friend that you passed by in your grocery store. Bill volunteered in his community and was never hesitant to lend a hand or smile.
Bill was diagnosed with cancer and by the time it was found, it had already progressed to his brain. He was referred to hospice care, and I was chosen to be a part of his journey. So often we hear the word journey, but do we actually stop to understand the true meaning of that word? Alex Noble wrote, “Success is not a place at which one arrives but rather the spirit with which one undertakes and continues the journey.” My journey with Bill and his family began with
“Hello, my name is Wendy. I am your Hospice nurse.”
It was late summer, and as I walked up the sidewalk toward the tiny house before me, I was greeted by a couple sitting on their porch. As I reached out to shake their hands, I was immediately drawn to their welcoming smiles and warm hospitality. I was invited into their home, where the aroma of freshly baked apple pie awaited me. As I took out my bag and opened up my computer, I asked them to tell me about their journey. They spoke of places they had been and shared pictures of their wedding, their children, and a lifetime of memories all neatly collected into photo albums. Bill shared his love of piano and music with me, when I told him of my gifts of voice and piano, his blue eyes opened wide like a child’s eyes on Christmas morning, and he proceeded to walk to his piano. Even today, I can still hear his soft voice singing as he played his piano. Together we sang hymnals from his youth, and through tear-filled eyes, his wife began to sing along too.
As our visit drew close to an end, I asked him if there was anything I could do, and he said, “yes, just don’t let me die in pain.” I held his hand and promised him that he would not travel this journey alone.
As each week came and went, I watched the man that greeted me on his porch gradually become weaker, the physical strength that allowed him to walk to me gave way, but his spirit never faltered. I watched with humility as he allowed a nurse aide and myself to bathe him and worked diligently with his doctor to ensure that his pain was managed. Never once did he lose his smile, or question God as to why? Instead, he continued his journey one day at a time and counted his blessings aloud for the life and time that he lived.
In Hospice we use words such as “transitioning” or “actively dying,” it refers to the time in which the physical body has fought the good fight and now it is winding down. I often tell my patients and their families:
“just like the body knows what to do to come into the world, it knows what to do to prepare itself to leave.”
As a Hospice Nurse, I have been given the privilege to educate and help prepare my patients and their family members for the journey ahead.
In his own home and surrounded by those who loved him, Bill closed his eyes for the final time that October night. The disease that infiltrated his body did not infiltrate his soul, and I was there that night as his spirit slipped away to touch the hand of God.
Each day thousands of people are faced with End of Life decisions. During a time that could be filled with hopelessness and fear, hospice serves to empower by providing education, support and compassion. Hospice ensures that no one travels the journey alone. Like a ripple across the ocean, our stories allow the lives of our patients to go on and reminds each of us that we have the power to replace the darkness with light.