I signed up to volunteer with Hospice at a time when I still didn’t understand what it meant to have a terminal illness, to be beyond treatment options, and to want to live out your days in peace. As someone who is science-minded, it is easy to fall into the trap of always wanting to find another treatment, another procedure or surgery to try to “fix” someone’s illness. However, in reality, many times this is futile and for some terminal illnesses still without treatment or cures, hospice is an option that patients must consider, when it is no longer worthwhile to put your body through painful experimental treatments with no beneficial results. My view of the incredible value of hospice care has since transformed, due in large part to my interactions with a few specific individuals at Carter Hall.
The first of these notable women is Margaret. Margaret is by far the most energetic of the patients on our service. Every week, without fail, we can count on her to be excited to talk to us. She raves about her children and her granddaughters, one of whom is pursuing a PhD. While sometimes it seems like there is not much to do in Carter Hall, since she is still able to walk or push herself around in a wheelchair, she frequently goes to the solarium and just reads or enjoys the steadily improving spring weather. Margaret is always excited to tell us stories of her past, of her love for her late husband, and how much she loved her college days. I most appreciate my interactions with Margaret for her ability to look back on her life through a very positive lens, as she feels content with all she has experienced. One piece of advice that she gave us that will stay with me for a long time is that she didn’t always get great grades in school because she prioritized living her life and having fun, and she has never regretted this. She says that looking back she doesn’t remember or care about the tests she failed, but has fond memories of all the fun times she had in her youth, enjoying life to the fullest. This was important advice for us, as Princeton students, to hear, because we are often victims of an uneven work/life balance, and shouldn’t let the fun possibilities of college pass us by as we are buried in our work and fixated on our grades.
The other woman who influenced me most during my visits was Janet. Janet was in many ways very different from Margaret, because her condition was worse overall, such that by my last few visits to Carter Hall, she was bedridden and spoke very quietly. Janet was a professor in her professional life, and had photos of her children all over her walls. Most of what I learned about her was from her roommate and her roommate’s family/visitors, who, noticing that Janet could not tell us very much about herself, wanted to fill in the gaps for us. She was an extraordinarily intelligent woman, and a professor of literature at a university. The last few visits with Janet made me especially upset, because she was shriveled in a little ball on the bed in front of me, and all I could think about was the injustice in such a great intellect living out her days in this state. Janet’s case taught me about the inevitability of decline that comes with age, with or without pathological conditions, and the indiscriminate nature of illness. While we are taught in our universities that science can solve all of our problems, the simple fact remains that science has left many problems unanswered, and regardless of the constant advancements made in science, we will never be able to cure every illness. People will get sick, and no one is immune to such debilitating, dehumanizing conditions. In cases like these, hospice care is especially important, for individuals from all backgrounds affected by terminal illnesses receive the same palliative care and are able to at least confront their illnesses in a peaceful setting.
My time volunteering with Hospice has shown me the importance of hospice care by exposing me to a diverse array of patients like Margaret and Janet. The experience has been at times upsetting, and at other moments, uplifting, which I am beginning to realize will be similar to my experience in a medical profession like neurosurgery. While, as in the case of Margaret, those who benefit from my care will be extremely rewarding in my career, in cases where I am unable to help, I, and the patient, may feel distressed and upset. However, at least now, I understand that palliative care and hospice is a valuable option available to all, especially those with untreatable illness and degenerative conditions. Overall I am grateful for the opportunities afforded to me by this experience, and hope to continue volunteering this summer with Hospice services in Linden, as a musician volunteer.