Irish Jigs and Disco Balls: Joy in the Face of Dying

I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect when I signed up to become a hospice volunteer. I suppose that based on my experiences watching my grandparents go through end-of-life care, I imagined that my visits might involve talking with patients about death, consoling them in their pain, and offering a hand to hold or a listening ear to anyone who needed it. But what I could not have expected was the great depths of joy that can be found at the end of life by honoring and celebrating the full humanity of all the individuals we serve.

“Ms. Irene” was the first resident to show me the rewards of helping patients find joy in their pasts and their presents, regardless of their medical condition. Ms. Irene always had the brightest smile, especially when watching Hallmark movies or when showing off her festive holiday pajamas. I could tell that this was a woman who had lived a wonderful life, but between her thick Irish accent and her increasingly severe dementia, it was difficult to establish a deeper connection with her. One day, however, I mentioned that I play the banjo, and her eyes brightened up. I asked her if she would like to make a band with me, and she enthusiastically said yes. After discussing our musical ambitions over the next few weeks, we were at a birthday party together when I asked Ms. Irene if she would like to show off her singing for me and some of her neighbors and friends. What happened next was like something straight out of a movie; after weeks of not saying anything besides “Yes”, Ms. Irene belted out several verses of an old Irish tune and got everyone around her clapping and smiling. Sadly, Ms. Irene died the following week, but I felt so privileged to be able to help her bring out this special side of herself. For the first time, I truly understood the power of helping patients with terminal diagnoses to spend their final days in as good health as they can so that they can have the most meaningful and joyful end-of-life journey as possible.

“Ms. Georgia” is another patient who I will always remember as a profound mentor on my road to becoming a physician. As the matriarch of a large Catholic family and a proud former Army wife, Ms. Georgia spent the first several weeks of our friendship telling me about her values of service, patriotism, motherhood, and spiritual devotion. I recognized how meaningful it was for Ms. Georgia to share these life experiences with me, but I also noticed how Ms. Georgia often grew sad when a thought reminded her of her beloved late husband or of the turmoil of current events. I wondered how I could balance offering her a safe space to voice her difficult emotions with helping her to focus on the many joys still present in her life. One day, I asked her what she liked to do in her childhood, and she remarked that she always loved to dance, and that she still does. When I asked her what songs she likes to dance to, she remarked with a smile, “You know, the kinds of songs that say things like ‘Shake your booty’!” She then stood up with her walker and showed me how she used to wave her arms and swing her hips on the dance floor at family weddings. Inspired by Rev. Kosinski’s story about bringing Ireland to an American nursing home for a resident who desperately wanted to travel there but was not realistically able to do so, I knew what I had to do for Ms. Georgia. I went straight back to my dorm to research battery-operated disco balls, and sure enough, the next week I found myself teaching Ms. Georgia how to change between all the different light settings whenever she wanted to bring the joy of a dance party straight to her home. The smile on her face as we simply stared at the ceiling and watched the green and blue lights flash by is something that I’ll never forget as a profound lesson in how simple it can be to bring someone else joy, and of how meaningful a small act of kindness can be for an elderly individual who is all too often forgotten in modern society.

I will carry these memories of my time as a hospice volunteer into my future career as a physician. I hope to treat my patients in a way which supports the life they hope to lead outside the hospital, and I am determined to strive to never lose sight of the full humanity of all those I come to serve. Because I have learned through these experiences that as much as medicine has a place in curing illness and providing excellent supportive care when that is not possible, sometimes the best treatment for the human soul is not merely a prescription, but a disco ball.