How Visiting a Hospice Patient Let Me Revisit The Concept of Death

I have been lucky during my hospice experience to have the same patient since I was assigned her in November. I have been able to visit her fourteen times. The first day I was so nervous to go in her room and meet her. I wondered if she would know why I was there; I was not even sure if she would want me there. I could tell right away, though, that Anne would be a pleasure to visit. Despite just having met each other, we talked for an hour on the first visit.

For the next few weeks, I was genuinely surprised to see how Anne was so receptive to my visits. During the last few weeks especially, she lit up when I walked in the room, even if she was quite tired. She even remembers details about my own life, like the fact that I am a triplet and attending medical school in the fall. I don’t mean to pat myself on the back when I say this, but I’ve realized that Anne enjoys my visits. I know she has some local family that visit her, but the frequency of their visits is irregular. I am happy to come see her every week because I know that breaks up her long days in the nursing home, especially the days when she is too fatigued to go out of her room. Seeing Anne’s happiness during our conversations has also shown me the importance of bedside manner and showing a genuine interest in my future patients. Because I have sat down with Anne and gotten to know her well, she has opened up to me about missing her family and feeling like there is no end in sight to her hospice status.

I enjoyed the prompts with quotes from Atul Gawande; I read one of his books in my Writing in Medicine English course at Villanova. The prompt I enjoyed the most was the one about communication skills. I especially liked how the prompt reminded us to not “talk down” to our patients, as I feel this is incredibly important. Even though our patients are older, have communication difficulties, and many of them are bedridden, they are not children and deserve our respect. Sometimes, I wanted to bring an activity or something for Anne to do because I’ve heard her say several times how bored she was, but I stayed away from crafts because they seemed too childish. Instead, I brought pictures from when I was abroad in France for Anne to look at. She really enjoyed seeing memories from the trips I enjoyed so much.

This experience has given me a more positive look on death and dying. In January, I actually experienced a death in my family when my grandfather suddenly passed away, just days after he had been up to visit us for Christmas. Looking back on his visit, he had some very wise and reflective comments for my siblings and I; it almost seems like he knew the end was near but did not want to talk about it. While that was his choice, I like that I am able to help someone actively through their hospice status. I have grown more comfortable talking about death and the fear of the unknown. I also see death as a release now, not a sad ending. Through our reflection meetings, I can even understand now how to some, death represents a new journey into the afterlife.

Hospice has reconfirmed my interest in being a doctor. While the subject is serious and sad, I have enjoyed making a difference in my patient’s life. I have noticed a change in my attitude about death as well. While it will never be a happy subject, I am more prepared to help guide my patients, their families, and myself through it.