Hospice by Ed MartinAudio version <a href="http://ripr.org/post/hospice-0" target="_blank">www.ripr.org</a>On an early June day, I paid a visit to a dying patient who was in the late stages of ALS (“Lou Gehrig’s Disease”). As was his wish, he was cared for by his devoted wife and daughter at home, with the help of a local hospice program where I serve as chief medical officer. During my visit, the patient’s daughter gently sat on her father’s bed, opened a Father’s Day card addressed to him, and read the most personal and heartfelt message I have ever heard. She told him in great detail what a wonderful father he had been, how she had always loved and admired him, and how much he meant to her. She thanked him for everything he had done for her and let him know what an important part of her life he had been. By the time she finished, all of us in the room were moved to tears. The patient died moments later.A career in hospice care may seem like a peculiar choice to some. For me, it has been life-changing. As a hospice physician for nearly 20 years, I know from personal experience that the moments at the end of life’s journey are often the most meaningful and precious — not just for the patient, but for the family members and healthcare providers who are there to witness and share them. I have learned far more about “living” from my patients and their families than I ever imagined possible.
After my visit with that patient on that early June day, I reflected on how fortunate I was that my own parents were in good health. I then thought about the Father’s Day card I recently prepared to mail to my father, on which I had written, “Have a great day. See you soon.” That card was never mailed. Instead, my Father’s Day card conveyed all of the things I had left unsaid for too many years -- how much I loved my father, how he had played such a significant role in my life, how he influenced my career choice, and how he affected my approach to patients. Inspired by my patient’s daughter, I let my father know just how wonderful a father and teacher he had been.
This story is representative of the relationships that hospice physicians, nurses, hospice aides, social workers, grief counselors, chaplains, and volunteers form with patients and their families each day. There is great reciprocity in helping individuals at the end of life. There is something to be learned from every encounter — no matter how brief -- with every family. Indeed, these encounters have changed my life.