To Look Death in the Eye

It was one hot, sunny day in October. I was nervous, pacing around my room. I wasn’t quite sure what to think. It was the day of my very first patient visit with Holisticare. We carpooled to the home, we parked the car, we walked into the building and signed in. I had no expectations, nothing to compare this experience to. So, when I first entered my patient’s room it was done quietly, slowly, with trepidation. My patient was an elderly woman, in her nineties, with advanced dementia. I spent the next two semesters visiting with her. I brought her picture books and toys. She loved poodles. She did not like dice. She kept trying to eat the pipe cleaners. If I tried to speak with her, she would babble along with me; eventually, when that was out of her reach, she simply screamed. Out of all of our time together, I remember the goodbyes the best: on good days, she would smile, say I was beautiful, and kiss me on the cheek. I would take her hands, look her in the eye, and know the next time I saw her she wouldn’t remember my face. But it only meant that every hello was a moment continually experienced for the first time. And I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

I always found it hard to look my patient in the eye. We’d face each other, but my sightline would track just to the right, or above to her hair, or down to the food stains on her shirt. I didn’t know what to expect from her, this woman who I had come to know over the course of several weeks. I was scared, though I didn’t know why. It took her calling my name directly (which I wasn’t even confident she remembered) for me to meet her gaze head-on, honestly and with intent, for the first time. As social creatures, we often look into each other, searching for the parts of ourselves reflected back at us. I could see her pain and her beauty and her bare self staring back at me, just as she could probably feel my stress and youth and naivete boring back into herself. In that moment, I realized death is just as much about seeing the humanity in others as it is about confronting the humanity within ourselves. I had not been scared of seeing her for who she was, but of acknowledging myself for who I am as a human on this Earth. It is my belief that this experience has given me not only a better sense of introspection, but a greater ability to look death in the eye.

It is my belief that my Hospice work has truly broadened my sense of vocation. I have always been interested in psychiatric treatment. However, when we were presented with scenarios of dementia, Parkinson’s, or Alzheimer’s in class, there was no sense of emotional connection. Now, after my year-long experience with my patient with dementia, I feel like I have more of an understanding of what that patient might be going through. My interest in working with individuals with these disorders has definitely increased. I feel like having the knowledge of what this disease actually looks like will help with designing treatments in the future. It is also hard to feel like the lab bench keeps the scientist distant from the patient – Hospice care has bridged that connection, lending even more meaning to the practice of medicine.