I am fortunate enough to have never experienced the death or dying of a loved one. In our society, it seems as though death has been neatly removed to a comfortable distance, pushed out of our thoughts and hidden from view under a cloak of feigned invisibility. When death does come, as it inevitably must, we often meet it with immense resistance, fighting until exhaustion to prolong life. For this reason, my lack of exposure to death was even more salient, causing me to worry about how I would fare as a volunteer in this program. Would my inexperience restrain my ability to empathize? Or would it manifest itself in an inability to handle the hardship of watching someone in the process of dying, and of witnessing his or her family’s pain?
Contrary to my expectations, my concerns quickly dissipated by both the supportive Hospice community and the calm wisdom of my patient. Our group meetings not only helped me prepare for what to expect, but also built my confidence that I could do what was expected of me. It also comforted me to know that I had a space to share my experiences and let my feelings known. The woman who I visited had lived a long and healthy life, and although she was now heavily burdened with the problems that come with old age, she was still very much alert and present. It was through my meetings with her that I learned the most about how death is not a thing to be feared.
Because my patient had trouble recalling who I was each new time I visited, our conversations were the same, for the most part, every week. She could not see me, but she was wonderfully sweet and welcoming each time she greeted me. We would talk about her morning, her two sons, her experience attending a top music school at a time when it was uncommon for women to be in college, and her “secret” to having lived for so long. Never did she complain about the pains I knew she felt, and when I left, she would express her thanks with the warmest gratitude. It wasn’t until my last visit to her that the mention of death ever came up. “It’s my time,” she said. “I’ve lived a long and happy life, and there’s nothing else for me to really do. I’m ready.”
I realize from this experience the value of Hospice care in encouraging acceptance of terminal situations and providing comfort and care during the final stages of life, ideas to which often not enough attention is paid. Death is not the opposite of life, but in fact, the natural end to its cycle. This is something that my patient has had a lot of time to come to terms with, and as a result, she is able to live the remainder of her time with peace of mind, rather than let the fear of death interfere with her quality of life.
I have a great deal of respect for the Hospice philosophy of care, and I hope to carry this philosophy with me if I pursue a career as a doctor. Patient care is not always about finding a cure. I truly believe that this experience has taught me to be a more sensitive and compassionate person, and I understand now that as a doctor, serving to patients’ emotional needs will be just as important as tending to their physical ones. I am grateful for having been given the opportunity to be welcomed into someone’s life in a vulnerable time, and to have come out with such heartwarming insights and memories.