The universe nudged me toward becoming a hospice care nurse. I guess you could say that it was my calling. I’ve been a hospice nurse for almost three years now with Hebrew SeniorLife Hospice Care.
I have a couple of theories as to why I became a hospice nurse. First: as humans, we all have fears about getting older and what the dying process holds. I want to believe that if I hold enough hands in my lifetime – there will be plenty of hands to hold mine at end-of-life. That’s me being completely honest. But it’s certainly not the whole story.
I describe myself as a blue collar working girl — I’ve had my share of waitressing jobs. My very first job was scooping ice cream at Brigham’s, and then some retail jobs. I have a degree in psychology and considered becoming a social worker at one time. I knew that if I did not pursue that road, I would still end up in a very people-oriented field. It was my job as a customer service representative for Blue Cross and Blue Shield (BCBS) that put me on the path to becoming a hospice nurse.
While at BCBS, I took a class and one of my classmates was a seasoned hospice nurse. I gave her the same response I now get – your job must make you so sad, it must be horrible. I was intrigued by her reply, which was that caring for patients at end-of-life was rewarding. When she reflected on her experience, it seemed to take her to a peaceful place.
I ultimately decided to go into nursing because it seemed like a natural fit for me. I know it sounds cliché, but I’ve always been a caretaker and a nurturer. Once I began my practice, I was drawn to patients who were seriously ill. I was a dialysis nurse for a year and a half, and some of my patients came in on stretchers and were non-verbal. In my heart I wondered, “is this how they would want to live —to be?” And if not, I wished that I could help them find comfort, choice and dignity. Looking back, I found myself sitting with patients who were probably in the process of dying more than with some of my healthier patients. When I was caring for patients who were actively dying, I would take my paperwork and camp out near them because I don’t think anyone should be alone during that time.
I describe the hospice nurses I know as “warm and fuzzy.” We’re very different from emergency room nurses, who run on adrenaline. They can do 20,000 things at once – boom, boom, boom. The pace of hospice care is vastly different. We can sit with a patient for an hour – just sit and hold their hand. We understand that being present is sometimes the best thing for a patient versus focusing on a task or medical intervention. We know that we’re making a difference and that just being there means a lot to the patient and their family members.
Often my visits end up focusing on spouses, the visits are often more social or familial. I have a patient right now with advanced Alzheimer’s disease who is completely non-verbal, and although I spend time with her, I spend almost as much time “kibitzing” with her husband. This is not unusual with the other nurses and members of the interdisciplinary hospice care team.
You become part of the family for the time you’re with a patient. In fact, the hugs and expressions of gratitude that you get from patients and their families are the most valuable part of my experience as a hospice nurse. Just as some believe it is an honor to be present and participate at birth, it is a bittersweet honor to be present at death, for this is also a delicate and precious time.
About Hospice Care at Hebrew SeniorLife
The hospice care offered at Hebrew SeniorLife as part of our continuum of health care services is aimed at easing patients’ pain and supporting their families at end of life. A leading provider of Jewish hospice services in the Boston area, we are known for delivering the highest quality of care, focusing on a commitment to community, and offering innovative end-of-life educational programming. We welcome patients and their families of all backgrounds, faiths and cultures, supporting them through the challenging weeks and months of terminal illness and remaining close by as families and friends begin to heal after loss.