April 22nd, 2015
As I walk into the small bedroom, I see a small, elderly woman reclining peacefully in her bed. Our eyes meet as I get closer, and hers gleam as if with recognition, though we’ve never met before. She is overjoyed that I, her presumed daughter, have come to see her in this temporary home. She tells me that she can’t wait to get home and back to work, that it will be any day now. Over and over, she repeats, “I’m so glad you’re here.”
This was how the first of my hospice visits began, and I myself am surprised by how vividly I remember it. This one woman’s complete misconceptions about her condition and my identity, coupled with her very real gratitude, will be impossible to forget. As I have proceeded with my hospice visits, I have continued to be shocked by just how much my time and care can mean for a patient nearing the end of life. Making the effort to see someone, to show them that you care, to let them know that they matter and that they are loved – this is something that my volunteer experience has shown me is extremely powerful, and I know this knowledge will serve me both in my work as a physician and in my personal experiences in the years to come.
What’s more, though, this volunteer experience has helped me begin to develop the valuable skill of being able to talk about death. While it seemed to me at first that this would be no big deal, it quickly became evident that it can be, in fact, very, very difficult. Before joining this program, I had no substantial experience with death or the sort of grief it brings about. While I am very thankful for this, I now see that experience with death and the dying will be crucial for me if I am to become a good physician. Especially if I am to work with higher-risk patients, I must be able to talk about the end of life, even with the patients themselves. Thanks to my hospice visits and group reflection meetings, I have begun to feel myself growing accustomed to using and accepting this language, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to begin to develop this skill. At the same time, however, I have come to realize that is rather illogical that never in the numerous years of medical training for physicians in the United States is hospice experience required. Death and grief, I now see, will be a very real part of a physician’s career, and dealing with these heavy topics is not something that should be glossed over.
At the same time, my volunteer experience has reminded me that dealing with death and grief is not something reserved for those with a medical degree. I am hardly twenty years old and am certainly nowhere near qualified to give medical care, yet when I hold a hospice patient’s hand, or listen to them tell me stories about their trip to Italy sixty years ago, or help them unwrap the sandwich that was brought up for lunch, I am providing true support. This comfort does not require a degree, and no certificate could make me more qualified to give it. As was mentioned during our very first volunteer meeting, the act of providing care for the dying has been around far longer than the word ‘hospice’ has. As a physician, a friend, a family member, a neighbor, and simply as a human being, this lesson will be one I would do well to remember. No matter what the circumstances, I now understand how powerful showing care and compassion can be. The next time I hear the remark, “I’m so glad you’re here,” I’ll know I’m doing something right.