For me, November marks five years of working at Heart ‘n Home and five years working as a Hospice Nurse. As I reflect back, some days I feel so far away from that young, scared nurse, and other days I feel right there. Feeling too naive, too unprepared to help a family, or helping a patient with the overwhelming magnitude of their death.
When I started training, I was so fearful. I was fairly fresh out of nursing school and I just wanted a book. A book I could read that would teach me how to “do hospice.” One that could explain everything I had to do and say and how to help these people that needed me. Sadly, there is no book. There is no perfect roadmap for every situation. I was desperate and an amazing nurse mentor pulled me aside and said “ Elise, don’t you think heaven will help you?” “ Don’t you think you are doing their work? And that they will work through you?”
I immediately felt peace after her wise words and I have often found myself reaching for that lifeline many times over the years.
The first year was intense. I did on-call for four years, so most of the time it was just me against the nights and weekends. That ding of my text message from our answering service still gives me a shot of anxiety. The beauty, and the scary part, of on-call nursing, is that generally when families and patients call after hours, there is a real need. But I was ready to help. Heart ‘n Home’s philosophy in regards to calls has always been to “go and see.” There are times that I have made a visit “just in case” and have been so grateful that I did. I have been able to help with hard things like pain crisis and terminal restlessness, to simple falls and bowel care. Families and patients are scared during those times and being present and willing to help are generally enough to calm their fears.
Most patients tend to die at night. It would be interesting to know the number of deaths I have attended over these last five years. I have come to love responding to deaths. They are generally just…peaceful. The hard work has already been done by the hospice team, the patient, and their family. What’s left is to simply validate their experience, by just being present. I love the time that I get while waiting for the funeral home to arrive because it allows the family to share the patient’s life story with me. I have heard some great stories and feel privileged to be part of some amazing peoples’ lives. I get to serve the patient one last time when I prepare them for the funeral home. Assisting in walking them out of the home is always a solemn privilege.
I had the opportunity to do that same thing for the nurse mentor that gave me so much peace when I started out. She ended up on our hospice services and I had the fortune to take care of her and her family the weekend she passed. It was overwhelming and it felt like more than I could do. But I was gently reminded of her words to me years previously, “Heaven will help you.” And heaven did and has continued to help me.
Her last words for me were, “Elise, have a good life.” I am trying to, and I think a lot of that I owe to my hospice experience at Heart ‘n Home and the knowledge that a good life encompasses physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing. I strive to see people, and myself, as whole beings. Beings with a whole lifetime of experiences, of trauma, of great joy, of a million little things that have made them who they are. Hospice constantly reminds me to have a good life and to let heaven help me.