Thursday, March 15, 2012

Sharing A Smile - A Story from Hospice

This is going to be a very quick post with something that happened last night.

Every other Wednesday evening I volunteer at a hospice that is associated with one of the local hospital systems here in Denver.  It is the same hospice in which my Mom died in 1999.  She died here in Denver because at the time that was the only "center of gravity" of the family.  That is - it was the only place in which more than one of us lived.  She was here as we thought we could support her better then if she were back in Pennsylvania.  Additionally, with my sister-in-law being a doctor we figured she could get additional treatment that she couldn't get back in Pennsylvania.

I digress and I wanted to get this story posted before I start work for the day.  It has been several weeks since I was last at hospice because on my previously scheduled night it was the day that I had my back surgery.  So except for 2 remarkable patients who have been there for several months I didn't know any of the patients.  The place was almost full when I walked in the door for my evening shift as there were only 2 open beds and while I was there a new patient was admitted.  Given how full the place was, myself and Phil, the other volunteer on duty spent pretty much the whole evening running from one task to another.

At one point Barbara, one of the CNA's (Certified Nursing Assistant) on duty asked me to look in on a patient in room 6 because the patient needed something.  I had walked by this room several times and I was pretty sure that room's occupant wasn't going to be with us for too long.  She had that look about her that was withdrawn and detached from the present.  After seeing many people in their final days/hours you begin to recognize some of the signs.

I got into the room and the patient was awake but she was at a point where she could hardly talk.  She has a type of cancer that is affecting her breathing and her ability to talk.  I had to get really close to her face to understand that she was asking for water as her voice was nothing more than a scratchy whisper.  I felt relieved as it was something I could actually get for her.  As volunteers we are only allowed to do so much.  We can't help patients with medicine nor are we supposed help patients who are on "fall watch" get out of bed and walk.  I scurried off to the kitchen and got her a glass of water filled with ice.  The glasses that are used at the hospice are special as they are these plastic mugs with built in straws.  That makes it easier for the patients to drink with out spilling any water on themselves.

I hurried back to the patient's room and gave her the mug filled with water and ice.  And I thought my work was done there.  However she just looked at it with this look on her face that she either didn't know what to do with it or couldn't do anything with it.  She looked as if she were ready to cry.  I stood there talking to her, trying to figure out what she needed.  She wasn't able to reply.  I did some song and dance, said I would be right back and went to the next room where Barbara was working.  Barbara had been calling for me to come to help her slide a patient up in bed.  (Granted I shouldn't have been helping Barbara move patients up in bed.  But it is something I have always done as I am always the youngest and strongest volunteer there.  I was not going to let my recovering back preventing me from helping out.  And no matter what I was going to help Barbara as she is a tireless worker and busts her ass to help the sick and dying day-in and day-out.  Though I have known her for almost a year, she thinks my name is Jessie instead of Jerry.  I don't bother correcting her as I think it kind of funny.  Makes me feel like Jessie James - the outlaw not the motorcycle idiot.)  As I helped Barbara move this patient up in bed I explained to her the situation in the other room.  She told me that the patient wasn't able to drink well because of her disease and to get water in to her you had to get her toothbrush, dip it in the water and then let her suck the water off the toothbrush.  OK - problem solved!

As soon as I was done helping Barbara I went back to "my" patient.  I told her "Hey I know what to do to help".  She got somewhat of a smile on her face as she could clearly understand what I was saying.  I got her toothbrush from her bathroom and started to do what Barbara had recommended.  You could tell from the patient's expression how good it felt to have the cool water in her mouth.  I kept doing this for while but some of the water started to spill out of her mouth and I was dripping some on her as I made the transition from the cup to her mouth with the toothbrush.  Getting a towel from the bathroom I used it to gently clean up her face and chest from where the water had spilled.

At this point the patient tried communicating with me again.  After a bit I figured she was asking me for a much smaller cup so that she could try and actually drink some of the water instead of this whole toothbrush method.  Off I went to the kitchen to find a smaller cup.  Returning to her room I wasn't really sure if she would be able to drink or not.  I gave the cup to her and asked her if she needed help to hold the cup up and drink.  After a few seconds she was able to communicate that she wanted my help.

I lifted the cup to her lips to let her drink.  It was a slow process but the expression on her face with each very small swallow of water she took was priceless.  She wasn't able to drink a lot but as this process went on of me lifting the cup to her lips, her drinking and then me figuring out when to take the cup away to let her swallow, we started to make a game of it.  I can't really explain the feeling that came over me as we played this little game of guessing how much water she wanted.  The best part of it was that she smiled.  We didn't know each other from the man on the moon, but yet in the horrible, dire time in her life a simple little game exchanged between us was able to make her smile.  With that smile I knew if I did nothing else while I was there that evening or even if I did nothing else for the rest of the week I would feel good about what I accomplished for this entire week.

I don't write to this pat myself on my back or anything like that.  I wrote this simply because it is such a story of the basic needs of every person.  During my shift last night that patient had no visitors so her only contact was with me, the other volunteer and the nursing staff.  Otherwise she was alone in that room contemplating that this was the end for her.  She will never leave that room alive.  But despite that, a small amount of company could make her smile.  I didn't even notice her name but she made a profound impact on me by the grace and humanity she exhibited during our short time together.  When I go back to the hospice for my next shift I am pretty darn sure she will no longer be there.  But she's always going to be remembered in my heart and head for that smile she gave me.

I hope everyone has a wonderful Thursday.

Thanks and peace to all! ~ J.


tcsTenor said...

That made me cry like a baby, cause I will be there someday and I hope there is someone like you there who will care enough to try to help me. Even through your own pain and issues you do this work for those souls you don't even know... THANK YOU, Jerry!! And Thank you for sharing this story.

Johanna said...

Sometimes it's the little things that mean the most. This inspires me to watch out for those opportunities that come along to make a difference in people's lives. Thanks for sharing.

Let us touch the dying, the poor, the lonely and the unwanted according to the graces we have received and let us not be ashamed or slow to do the humble work.
Mother Teresa

Johanna said...

Speaking of the difference little things do make, I'd like to invite you to read a post that I wrote about a difficult time in my life, if you get the chance. It's called "Cold November Rain"'s from November 2011. Thanks.