One aspect of working with the dying that doesn't get the attention that it deserves is self-care. In our modern world, there is every incentive to go faster and do more. When faced with actual, honest-to-goodness life and death circumstances, caregivers and families can quickly go off the deep end and over-work, over-commit, or over-extend.
The funny thing is that when we hear the words "self care," we generally know what we should do, but we tend to not do it because we don't have time – a clearer example of irony would be hard to find. We know we should take a break, or go for a walk, or not eat that piece of candy, or count to ten, or take a deep breath, or get at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise five days per week, or give 10 compliments per day, or have a regular spiritual practice, or have a creative outlet, or smile even when we feel like frowning. We know these things, but life (and especially death) get in the way of them.
I used to joke that art was my therapy. Today, I no longer joke about it.
In August of 1995 I had a heart attack, cardiac arrest and near death experience. It serves as an inspiration for many of my works, making it clear that art is therapy. Art is also therapeutic to me because it is so different than the way I spend the vast majority of my time as a general internist physician. In that role, I must step outside of myself and relate to the experiences of others, even though my own inner life continues whether or not I am aware of it.
As we strive to serve our patients, their families and the community at-large, we host many events that are open to the public and try to make sure to let everyone know about them. Several of these events hosted by Midwest CareCenter have made headlines online and in print over the last few months.
The thing I really like about my job is the opportunity to work in different settings and to meet a variety of people from all different backgrounds. Taking care of people at the end of life gives me a chance to make them feel good, almost like they felt when they were well enough to do things for themselves. Even a simple shave makes a man feel refreshed, better, and more comfortable.
As hospice care providers, we are often caring for people who are in pain or who cannot get comfortable and this is the challenge of this job. We need to consider options to minimize their distress. Some approaches that might work in other settings or for other people cannot always be used, and we need to be resourceful in how we assist these patients. All of us, in whatever discipline, think about this and do our part to help our patients find comfort in small and big ways.
Through my work, I have been especially surprised to meet new people or reconnect with people I've met or cared for in other settings. I find that the world seems increasingly smaller and I am connected with more people than I would have ever known through the care that I have provided. I never know who I might run into again.
My late husband, Tom, loved football. While Tom liked baseball―he was a die-hard Chicago Cubs fan―by August, the Cubs were almost always non-contenders, so it was time for the football season to begin. He really loved the Bears. In fact, according to him, the biggest fight in our marriage related to me cheering for the Packers and him cheering for the Bears. After that fight, I realized I loved him more than the Packers, so I became a Bears fan, too. And even though Tom has been dead for over five years, I still root for the Bears―much to the dismay of my Packer fan family.
CampCare is a grief support camp for children and teens who have lost a loved one. This past summer, campers experienced camp in very meaningful ways and created memories that they will carry with them always. These experiences have had a profound influence on our campers.
The patient's breathing was labored and his forehead was warm and clammy when I arrived. His pulse was present, but irregular and quick. He opened his eyes widely and wildly in response to having a pulse ox placed on his finger. The facility staff was trying to address his respiratory distress, and the hospice RN came in to help. Not far behind the nurse was one of the patient's children. Through all of this, the musical prescription began—first a cappella, and then, after the patient's son arrived, the harp and voice together helped ease the patient's respirations.
Many times when I see families that have come togethter to care for their loved one, they do so out of love. Also significant, is that the loved one that they are caring for feels like they are a "burden" and don't want their family to feel put out. I think one of the most inportant parts of my job is to help my patients understand that their family wouldn't want it any other way!
As a hospice patient care volunteer I've spent time with families, patients and caregivers. Whenever I needed to talk to a patient's nurse or social worker or any other team member, they were always promptly there for me, supporting my needs as a volunteer. Our patients' families always would speak very highly to me of our teams and the services they/we provided.
One of my most memorable chaplain visits was to visit the wife of a patient who was not assigned to me, and whom I had never met before. We had a task to accomplish, and while working on that we started talking. I was a High-Church Episcopalian and she was Jewish "not-religious" I learned, but this made no difference I soon realized. As we sat together at their kitchen table, coffee in hand we talked. She shared about how she had met her husband, the children they had together. The good times and the hard times they shared together in their 70 years of marriage. With a twinkle in her eye she spoke of their granddaughter who had just graduated from college, she was so proud. We talked about the difficulty of her husband's illness and how she tried to keep a positive attitude about it all. As I sat there listening to her talk I soon realized that she was probably giving me more encouragement than I to her. But then, most often as a chaplain, I listen...I listen to stories about life, about faith, about family and friends...this visit was no different.