Hospice prepares us for the end of life—helping patients feel better and helping families cope.
Recently, my beautiful granddaughter turned two. There was a party… and lots of fun. I was reminded of the day she was born and the day she was baptized. The beginning of life is precious and sacred. By the same token, I was reminded of the day a few months ago when her grandmother was born to heaven. My wife died on Easter Sunday after a year and a half of dealing with cancer.
As someone of strong Catholic faith, I am well aware of the awe and mystery of life, and there are no more poignant reminders of that sacred gift than its bookends. While we celebrate life’s beginnings with joy, we mourn its end, even though that end is a new beginning of life eternal. For many, the end of life has a preparatory period, much like pregnancy prepares a mother and father for birth. We have prenatal classes and obstetricians and midwives to accompany us on that journey. For those who are fortunate enough, we have the same for the end of life in hospice.
Hospice is both a service and a benefit. In the early 1980s, President Ronald Reagan signed the Medicare hospice benefit into law. Benefits began on November 1, 1983, and November is now recognized as National Hospice and Palliative Care Month. While the Medicare hospice benefit is important, I’d like to emphasize the service that hospice provides.
I am a physician (full disclosure, I have been working with hospice for many years); even so, when my wife was ill, having hospice with us was a literal godsend. The nurses knew what to look for and anticipated our needs even before we thought of them. So when my wife had a sudden change in her condition, we had the tools, medications and supplies needed to manage it and keep her with us at home, surrounded by her loved ones and familiar things. This allowed us to be her family, and being present for a loved one as they complete their earthly journey can be one of the most rewarding things possible. It was a gift for me to be with her as she went through this difficult time, and to be her husband—not someone trying to navigate a complex and sometimes challenging medical system.
As a physician, I have experienced the death of many patients. Even that did not prepare me for the death of my wife. Hospice affirms life and supports the patient and family. Most families who experience hospice report they wish they had begun to take advantage of it sooner. I would agree. Even though Carolyn was in hospice for about a month and a half, I wish she had agreed to take advantage of them sooner.
Hospice is also about building relationships, and that takes time. It cannot be done in a few days. Hospice doesn’t mean giving up, or that one is dying immediately—I have had many hospice patients doing very active things. Because hospice focuses on helping patients feel better and helping families cope, they are often able to have that one last fishing outing, picnic or whatever else has meaning for them. Knowing it is likely their last makes it more special, if bittersweet. Those memories last forever—just like our time in heaven. iBi
Robert Sawicki, MD, is Vice President of Clinical Services for Home Care and Post-Acute Service at OSF HealthCare.