November is National Hospice and Palliative Care Month. The following story is just as it happened so many years ago.
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It is 1977, and I just finished the training class for hospice volunteers. I am in a large Los Angeles hospital that has set aside one ward for dying patients. There is always a shortage of nurses and always a need for trained volunteers.
As I enter the ward, I feel anxious about seeing a terminally ill stranger for the first time. At the nurses’ station, two nurses are bent over charts. As I wait for them to look up, my eye catches a poem on a bulletin board:
“I ask for a natural death, / No teeth on the ground, / No blood about the place. / It is not death I fear, / But unspecified, unlimited pain.” (Author unknown)
I think about the books I’ve read on death and dying, the extensive training class and the lectures I’ve listened to by oncology doctors and nurses.
I feel a light touch on my arm. “Are you ready?” asks Carol, a senior volunteer assigned to be my “buddy” for this first hospice experience. We walk together down the hallway and she says, “Some patients can be a very rewarding experience. Unfortunately, Joe isn’t one of them. Be prepared for a very angry man.”
Carol explains that Joe is locked into the stage of anger over what is happening to him. According to Elizabeth Kubler Ross, a famous pioneer in the hospice movement, there are five stages of death and dying: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally, acceptance. These stages are not necessarily followed in order, and sometimes not followed at all.
With Joe, his anger is directed at the cigarettes that he believes caused his lung cancer. He is also angry with his wife, Marie, who cannot (or won’t) care for him at home. And Marie is angry at Joe for “bringing the cancer on himself.”
Carol tells me that Joe rails at the nurses and barely tolerates the doctors. She tells me other volunteers avoid him if they can. But at this moment, he is the only patient for me to see.
I follow Carol into the room, hanging back, feeling apprehensive. One bed is empty, one holds a person in a coma, and over in the corner is Joe, facing a window, a sheet is pulled up to his chin.
“Joe,” says Carol, “I’ve brought a new volunteer to see you.” My heart races as I try to remember things from the training course: “Always introduce yourself. Touch lightly. Use the patient’s name and your own name, every time. Don’t wear perfume. Be a good listener. Keep a sense of humor. Remain non-judgmental.”
So much to remember.
Carol repeats her name to Joe, and the figure in the bed turns his head slowly towards us.
“Joe,” she says, “this is Bobbie.”
In the late afternoon light, the face of the man startles me. Not because of the disease that is destroying him, but because of he looks like a younger version of my own father. As Joe’s eyes fix on mine, I move past Carol and reach out my hand. It is a purely instinctive move.
Joe extracts a thin, emaciated hand from under the sheet and weakly takes my own in his. I’m not sure what prompts me to ask where he is from, but his answer of having grown up in Nebraska — my home state — is the catalyst that opens the door to communication. Carol looks from Joe to me, gives me a smile that says, “You’re going to do just fine,” excuses herself and leaves the room.
As days pass, even though it is increasingly more difficult for Joe to speak, he wants to talk about life on his dairy farm, family members now gone or, worse yet, “too busy” to come see him. I pull up a chair to sit close and listen to Joe talk of cold Nebraska winters, hot summers and old bird dogs he loved.
During the next several days, I spend a great deal of time with Joe, never quite getting used to how much he resembles my beloved dad.
Soon, Joe grows weaker and less interested in talking about the past. On Christmas Eve, he simply turns toward the window and quits fighting.
In the following months, I gain a great deal more in hospice experience, gradually developing better communication skills with patients and their families.
To those of you who feel the call to do this special work of the heart, I encourage you. There will be highs and lows and frustrating moments, but you will touch lives in ways you will remember forever — just as they will touch yours.
I believe God had a hand in arranging for Joe to be my first hospice experience. Sometimes I look back and think of Joe as another Christmas miracle that year. I have lost count of the number of dying folks whose lives have interconnected with mine through the years, but I will never, ever forget a man named Joe.
Note: For local information, contact Melissa Maxon, hospice volunteer coordinator at 541-574-2537.
Bobbie Lippman is a professional writer who lives in Seal Rock with her cat, Purrfect. She is the author of “Good Grief: A Collection of Stories As One Woman Journeys From Heartbreak To Healing Through Honesty and Humor.” The book, with all proceeds going to the Rotary International Foundation, is available at JC Market in Newport and directly from Bobbie, who can be contacted at [email protected]