I treasure many of my interactions with hospice patients—each patient taught me something different and valuable about the process of dying and reflecting on one’s life. One interaction that stands out in particular involved a patient suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, named Anne. Anne was incredibly unreceptive to my attempts to engage with her. In fact, she seemed to resent my presence, responding to my questions with angry Spanish curses. After four months of such hostile receptions, I began to feel more like a burden than a help to her. Still, in the hopes my mere presence was a comfort to her, I continued to visit.
One day, I noticed Anne sitting alone listening to music in the nursing home common room. In an attempt to entertain both her and myself, I started dancing. Anne’s expression, usually downcast and angry, turned to surprise and then joy. She began clapping and laughing, asking me questions about the weather and my life. This was the first time I had ever seen her smile, and our conversation lasted some time. Anne passed away later that week, and I am incredibly grateful to have connected with her and given her simple joy in the last days of her life.
This experience has influenced me as a person, encouraging me to persevere (and potentially embarrass myself) in my attempts to connect with people. I think it will also influence my work as a physician. I hope I will take the time to get to know my patients personally so that I can understand what will bring them joy in their final days. Volunteering with hospice patients has also taught me that it often helps to incorporate some humor into this process. I feel privileged to have connected with patients on a deep level at such an emotional time in their lives.