Caring for the Dying

Caring for the Dying

An excerpt from my untitled poem about my hospice experience:

You are dying
But you are still living
Que sera sera

All this time, we lived parallel lives. But for the past 8 months, our lives intersected every Saturday. Since the start of the Pre-med Hospice Program, I have visited one patient. She is 98 years young and a Main Line native. Listening, laughing, dancing, and crying, we spent every week sharing stories and listening to Frank Sinatra, Elvis, Louis Armstrong, and Nat King Cole.

I remember during the interview, my first question to the hospice coordinator was something along the lines of, “What percentage of hospice patients die during visits?” Then, I was taught that the likelihood of my patient dying during one of the hour visits every week was not very likely. I worried about my patient dying. If my patient died, I would have failed as a volunteer. Looking back now, I am not 100% sure why I felt that way. It might have to do with my background experience with medicine. I went to a high school that allowed me to focus on health professions, but never learned about hospice care. The only time I’ve ever heard of hospice care was when my great grandfather was placed in a hospice center. Therefore, I thought of hospice as institutions for people who were very close to death and were bed ridden.

My assigned patient was the exception to the “rule”. She has been in the facility for over 3 years. Right away, I noticed she was alert, lucid and talkative. I was expecting a person who was in really bad condition, someone opposite of my patient. And some of my peers from the hospice program did have such patients, which made me realize how wide ranging the term “hospice” really is. It also made me realize how narrow minded I was. Being a graduating senior, I was so focused on my last year of college that I never made time for people outside of the school environment. Volunteering with this program helped me get out of my own world and enter into a different space, while holding space for people I was not necessarily close to. Sometimes I would walk into the building stressed out about school and all my upcoming essays and exams, but my patient would always find a way to get me out of my own head. She helped me realize how big the world is and brought me down from the clouds.

You are dying. My comfort and understanding of death and dying has changed completely. Volunteering with a hospice patient in a living center with other hospice patients pushed me to break down my own thinking about death. Deciding to enter into hospice care is just as meaningful, if not more, than deciding to go under rigorous treatment for a disease. As an aspiring healthcare provider, it is important to me to not hold a bias against those who chose not to get treated for health conditions. It’s okay to choose hospice care. It doesn’t mean giving up, it means choosing what’s best for that particular person.

But you are still living. For hospice patients, doctors can sometimes be so focused on the fact that their patient is so close to death that they forget their patients are human too. Another lesson the volunteering experience has taught me is how to listen better. As I would sit by her side, I listened to her talk about her family, her friends, her experiences, and her pain. The pain that she feels from her disease is real and there is no one way to treat it. Treatment can be much more than machines and surgeries. Part of my patient’s treatment, I would say, are the visits from her volunteers. During my visits, I never wanted her to feel like I wanted something from her: I didn’t want to check on her vitals or her condition … I wanted to check up on her, as a person. Caring for someone who is dying means so much more than drug treatments and keeping them alive. It’s making sure they live a good life.

Thinking about how I’ve grown during the course of my hospice experience, I am now much more comfortable talking about and accepting death. End of life care can look like many different things for different people, and it is not my place to judge what people decide. But it is my place to accept and support regardless of what people choose.