If you had asked me last October whether I would consider going into geriatric medicine or working exclusively with those who were dying when I became a physician, I would have said no – too depressing. Obviously, the work is valuable and important, but it is more suited for those who would be willing to sacrifice their own personal enjoyment in their careers for the sake of others. I couldn’t imagine going to work each day and getting to know patients who were expected to die within six months; work where patients who lived for more than a year or so were the exception, not the rule.
I was wrong.
That’s not to say that work in hospice care is not difficult. When one of my patients died, I found myself wrestling with regrets: I regretted not knowing her more, not spending more time with her, not knowing her before she developed dementia. Each time a patient dies, I imagine that a hospice care physician feels that same sense of loss; but that’s not all there is.
Working with hospice patients isn’t a sacrifice, even if it appeared that way to me at first. As I got to know the lives and families of the different patients I visited, I found that my visits were something I looked forward to. Just as they were a time for these patients to talk with someone who didn’t expect anything from them, they were a time for me to step back from my busy college life and listen to their stories. Even though I only knew my patients for an hour a week, I found myself sharing details from my own life and eagerly learning about theirs. With some of my patients, I read stories to them, and with some, we sat and relaxed or listened to music – but no matter what activity we were doing on a particular day, I found that the closeness we developed wasn’t manufactured or artificial, but natural and satisfying.
One of my most rewarding visits was on Easter Sunday, just a week ago. I’m not religious myself, so I didn’t realize that it was Easter until I was on the train headed to the nursing home. As I walked inside, I was thinking to myself that maybe my patients would all be visiting with family or out to dinner or church – and, in fact, one of them was. However, the other patient was sitting by himself in the mostly empty dining room. I brought him outside into the nice weather, and we sat and people-watched as families came and left. This wasn’t the most active visit I had with him, and I didn’t necessarily learn more about his life or have any deep discussions with him. But at the end of the visit, I felt that we had become closer, and I was better for it.
I’m still not sure what field of medicine I want to go into, but geriatrics is on my list. Even if I decide that I would rather specialize in a different field, my work as a hospice volunteer will continue to be a valuable reminder that life’s worth isn’t measured in the number of days we have left but the connections we have made and continue to make – and I hope that I can continue to make connections.