Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Angels Among Us...continued

So…hospice is a little tricky, psychologically. Timing is everything! When you turn to hospice, you are admitting that the end of your physical life is somewhat imminent and that you do not want to take any extraordinary measures to extend it. You are going to die. Soon. And you are ok (more or less) with the next steps. Not a decision to be considered lightly!


Bill and I were clear with each other that we weren’t ready to give up hope. But, to “understand our options”, we filled our hospice prescription about a month later. As we suspected, we were a bit premature. But, it turns out, there is a step you can take that extends some, but not all of the benefits of hospice. It’s called Palliative Care – think hospice lite. Our experience was brief but positive. I would highly recommend that anyone facing a potentially life threatening illness investigate the services offered by palliative care practitioners in your community.

Our stay in palliative care lasted about a month…until our next clinic visit. By then it was clear that Bill’s ALS had a plan of its own and didn’t really care about our need to get comfortable with the stages of the disease. The palliative care nurse recommended that we contact hospice. It turned out to be the best decision of our lives.

Because it’s scary to admit that death is inevitable, and potentially close at hand, it’s hard to bring hospice into the picture. Typically, the hospice team is brought in during the last stages of the patient’s life, allowing them to die outside of the clinical environment of a hospital, affording comfort and dignity. We filled our prescription and received a perspective on what hospice COULD be.

If the hospice caregivers are brought into the family early on, they have a chance to get to know the patient, the family and gently walk everyone through the process. Not that their job is especially fun, but it isn’t meaningful for them if they are just around to help medicate a patient. They will do it, but optimally, there are lots of resources available which can make the journey much easier for the patient and for the primary caregivers. For example,
  • Chaplains can address spiritual needs.
  • Social workers can bring in community resources.
  • Nurses and medical professionals can baseline vitals and have the difficult end of life discussions at a pace that seems comfortable and respectful.

And so it was with us. A care team was assigned to us. Jolene was the case nurse and a perfect fit for Bill. She respected him, listened to his wishes, was his advocate when I disagreed with a particular course of action and in general got to know him as a whole person. Not just a patient with symptoms to be managed. I loved her, because I could use her as an ally as needed! Jolene handled any major medical issues and made sure I was trained to handle the day to day issues. In the early days, a team of aides came twice a week to help with bathing and personal care. As we progressed, they came more often, giving me an hour of respite and Bill a clean shave and a smiling disposition. Showers will do that! Emmy was always his favorite. Hospice programs vary, so do your homework to find a good fit. I know of an ALS patient and his wife who received regular massages in their home as part of their hospice services!

I’m not certain why someone chooses to pursue a career in hospice. It may be that hospice chooses them. No matter! I am eternally grateful for these special angels among us. Thanks to them, the passage from this life is easier, and the resulting “good death” can indeed be celebrated.
Also posted to Fashionable Giving

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Angels Among Us

When we are born, we come into the world amid much celebration and joy. When we die, why isn’t it the same?

Full disclosure at the beginning. Some may find the next few posts uncomfortable to read, because we don’t generally discuss death and dying in this culture. I hope you will stay with me as I share part of my personal story and thoughts on a model for a good death as I recognize the many angels who have chosen a career in hospice, during National Hospice month.

In my lifetime, pets, grandparents, friends, in-laws, my dad and my husband have died. For my dad and my brother in law, a gunshot wound and a motorcycle accident ended their lives almost instantly, mercifully. For those of us left behind, the process of processing their death was painful. We have all been very philosophical, saying “at least he didn’t suffer”. But it still hurts some 20+ years later when I want to run something by my dad and have to grapple with the quantum physics/time-space continuum involved in that conversation. Needless to say, I’m snapped quickly back to the present moment! We have the conversation; I just have to listen a little more closely for the answer!

Since pets have chronologically shorter lifespan, we are generally prepared for them to die in our lifetime. I completely agree that the grieving process is intense, but philosophically, humans tend to be more prepared for a pet death. For my pets, I have been grateful for the caring counsel of a marvelous team of veterinarians!

For everyone else I’ve lost, hospice staff and volunteers have often been involved, at least to some degree. In the cases where hospice was involved, they were generally brought in at the last few days/weeks of life, primarily to help manage pain and offer some comfort to the survivors. And I will never be able to sufficiently express my gratitude for their marvelous work!

When we received Bill’s ALS diagnosis, we did a lot of soul searching. We suddenly found ourselves facing a lot of questions about death and dying. And….facing a question neither of us planned to discuss at only 23 years into our relationship. I’m not sure when we planned to have the conversation exactly, but I promise you, it wasn’t then! And from a now experienced vantage point, questions like “How do you feel about death?”, “What is quality of life for you?”, “Do you want to be buried or cremated or something else?”, “ What kind of funeral would you like to have?” need to be brought up sooner than later. Yikes!

As I write, I am so grateful for the counsel of Dr. Will North, one of the finest human beings I have ever met, and a darned good neurologist! During one of our early visits, with Will, Bill needed to know the particulars of what the last few hours and minutes of his life might be like. Not an especially surprising curiosity from a guy who had spent a most of his career in rescue situations and had seen his share of death. Me….I started to squirm and look for the exit route, knowing full well there is no escape, either from ALS or this particular conversation. Damn!

With his characteristic candor and amazing bedside manner, Dr. North walked us through what the final days and hours would likely bring for Bill. Turns out that the ONLY kind thing about ALS is that in most cases, it allows the patient a very peaceful passing and I can report that is what happened for us. Once Dr. North had satisfied all of Bill’s technical questions, he broached the subject of hospice and wrote out a prescription, with the understanding that we could “fill” it whenever we were ready. I remember our walk back to the car and ride home as exceptionally quiet as we each processed this new information.

I don’t remember who finally broke the silence but it was as if each of us was waiting for the other and finally couldn’t stand it anymore! We agreed that we were too early for hospice – Bill was still walking at this point – but we agreed that when the time came, we wanted hospice involved.

To be continued….

Also posted to Fashionable Giving