Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Charity Begins at Home

There’s a thing I want to do, and it’s something I’m completely terrified of doing. I want to be a hospice volunteer.

Three years ago my mother died. In the last month of her life (perhaps just the last three weeks—it blends together in my memory like a hideous nightmare), she was able to be home, surrounded by her three daughters. Looking back, I'm not sure how we all managed to take the time off work. None of us worked flexible jobs. But we were there, all the time. We were there up till the very end.

Two things made that time bearable: the fact that we were in it together, and the fact that every day a hospice care worker came by.

Now, the nurse didn’t come every day. He or she stopped by once every four or five days. At first, this didn't feel like enough. We wanted them there all the time. We were terrified. I work 911 for a living, and we’d been told that now 911 wasn’t an option. They gave us a sticker to put on our phone that said In Case Of Emergency, Do Not Call 911. Call Hospice Nurse For Advice. We were, for the first time in our lives, completely alone, beyond help. It was up to us.

But every day, someone came by. An older woman who talked too much and said strange things about crystals came twice a week—she was an odd duck, but she knew how to wash my mother’s hair without hurting her, something we hadn’t been able to figure out. Another person came just to help around the house. The chaplain came by. Mom didn’t want to pray with him because he wasn’t her minister, but I talked to him in the garden, which was what I needed.

They made us feel not so alone.

One night, I helped my mother to the bathroom, using my arms to support all her weight. I dropped her—either that or she slipped one way as I went the other—all I knew was that her head hit the doorjamb with a gigantic thud. A goose egg formed almost instantly, and I was sick to my stomach. Mom didn’t even notice it had happened, and no one else was awake in the house. I couldn't, wouldn't, wake them. My first instinct was to—what else?—call 911. But I couldn’t.

So I called the nurse. She soothed my nerves, telling me yes, it would bruise, but if her breathing remained the same then I didn’t even need to do anything for it. She was dying, for Chrissakes, what did a bruise matter? (Okay, she didn’t say that. But I took that away from it.) She made me feel better. “It happens,” she said. “You’re doing everything you can, and you’re doing it right.”

That was what we needed then, so desperately. We needed people who weren’t too uncomfortable to look us in the eye. People who didn’t burst into tears as soon as they came out of her room. People who could ask us how we were, to whom we could tell the whole truth. Unvarnished.

It’s almost a cliché, isn’t it? That hospice workers are angels? But they are. I want to be one. I have a new job, and a little more time on my hands. I’m looking into it this week.

11 comments:

  1. Rachael, thank you for sharing this story. It made me cry, of course. It is a cliche, but a wonderful one: they are, indeed, angels. You'd be an incredible hospice worker-- you radiate warmth and calmness.

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  2. Bless you. I'm a nurse and Hospice was invaluable when my mom died as well. In fact, the nurse and social worker were both at the house when my mom passed. I think you would be a wonderful hospice worker, even more so with your experience. Hugs.

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  3. I wish I had a happy Hospice story for you, but the local group really dropped the ball on my sweetie. He had been moved from the hopital to a nursing home a week before he passed (his doctor and I agreed that I could not meet his medical needs at home). They had been notified a week before his move. He had been promised certain services to make his time easier. No one showed up until his final day. I was there every day, as was my mom. The only thing they did was approve him being given his meds (that was going to happen if I had to pitch a fit, but they saved me from having to).

    They were more helpful when my grandma passed several years ago (Alzheimers). My mom thought about becoming a volunteer with them, went thru the training, and decided that she's dealt with too much death lately to be effective. Maybe later.

    I'm glad your experience was good, and more power to you if you become a volunteer.

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  4. You are amazing, and I think this is a much needed job that not many people can handle. You are strong, and I think your strength can be a blessing to those in hospice, and their families.

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  5. You are one of my angels, so I can completely see you doing this.

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  6. I know who I want to visit me when I'm in hospice -- YOU! DH asked me the other day why my doc is willing to put me on such a radically high level of antibiotics. I answered that it's a good way to postpone hospice. He keeps forgetting that I'm in that gray zone between remission (ain't gonna happen) and hospice, and if I give up and am not relentless in the fight, then my time will be short. Or maybe it's that the only way he *can* fight it is to be Mary Sunshine? I do hope that when the time comes, he will be able to shift into the more subtle mindset of acceptance, warmth, and comfort. I think you will be divine at helping people with the transition, all grounded and sisterly, very present -- the antithesis of that awful dry distance in Sartre, a sparkling wit, and you fear fearlessly. Do, please, realize that it's a gift that will fill you with hope and wonder *and* grief. Pace yourself and replenish your soul so you don't end up with a leak. Oh, and when you're sitting bedside, relax! Do a bit of yoga or breathing exercises or hum in your head and wiggle your shoulders. Really helps. Love you!

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  7. hey sweetie, i am whispering here because your post made me remind myself of a promise i made myself after my mom's long stay in nursing home - that someday i would volunteer to do pedicures. sure, nail polish and flowers who want them, but mostly taking care of people who have lost the ability to communicate, making sure they don't have injuries they can't express. the time isn't quite here yet but it will come. thank you sugar.

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  8. Oh, Rachael. You made me cry, too. When my grandfather was given three months to live, even though he was 92, he was so upset and terrified. I was with him when the first hospice volunteer came to go over what they could do to help. I was hugely grateful for those people. They were kind, graceful, and faced everything with clear eyes and honesty. They helped my grandfather feel safer. They supported all of us in the family and answered questions we didn't want to ask. Being a hospice worker/volunteer takes a special calling, and it is a great gift. You'll do it with love and sensitivity.

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