My mother endured many ups and downs with her physical ailments the last few years of her life. But mentally, she never gave up―nor did my father. He was her rock.
Upon mom's last admittance to the hospital, after being in there for a few days in a semi-comatose state, she greeted me with a cheerful hello as I entered her room. I recall explaining to her that she was being transferred to hospice. She didn't understand why.
My name is Mary Spiewak and I've been a patient care volunteer for five years. Both of my parents were hospice patients in a wonderful program in northern Minnesota. The support my family received left a lasting impression on me. Before my mom passed, I told her that some day I would be a hospice volunteer, to try to pay back what hospice had given to all of us.
Recently, Stuart Scott, an ESPN sports anchor died of stomach cancer. In reading tributes to him, several quotations were mentioned from his speech at the 2014 ESPY Awards:
"I have one more necessity ― it's really two," he said, referring to his daughters. "The best thing I have ever done, the best thing I will ever do, is be a dad .... It's true."
"Don't give up. Don't ever give up."
"When you die, that does not mean you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live and the manner in which you live."
When my mother, Stasy Heile, entered Midwest CareCenter's hospice suite at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights, I was certain she was near the end. Mom had experienced a hemorrhage in her brain and was in an unresponsive state. My five siblings and I stood vigil with her 24/7 and I was probably there the most, so I got to see the hospice unit in action and I was blown away. The empathy, care and compassion – we were just overwhelmed with love from these people who had never met us.
Midwest CareCenter spearheaded two collection drives for those in need this holiday season and the response has been overwhelming. All week there has been a steady stream of volunteers, staff and friends coming in with their donations. They are coming to the aid of one of our patients whose family needed extra support over the holidays. The patient, a 21-year old mother of two children, died in our hospice this week.
The concept of dying with dignity is frequently in the news. The latest has been Brittany Maynard's wish to end her life. Brittany had the same brain tumor as my husband, Tom – a glioblastoma.
I understand Brittany's decision. The end game with this type of cancer is not pretty. Our family, however, took a different approach.
Tom's tumor presented itself in his spine. In the beginning, Tom had difficulty walking but the tumor quickly progressed, leaving him paralyzed in a matter of months. If you knew Tom, being immobile was not his style. He was that dad who played catch with our son and daughter and all the neighborhood kids. In the nicer months of the year, he had a regular, weekly tee time at a local golf course and tried to sneak in a couple of extra rounds of golf every week, too. He traveled with his job and we took some exceptional vacations. After living and caring for someone who is paralyzed, I have incredible empathy towards people who are confined to wheelchairs – it is not easy. But it would have been impossible if one of our neighbors hadn't made coming over every day to help me with Tom part of his daily routine.
We are so grateful to you, the friends who support us year-round in providing quality, end-of-life care for our community.
You help each of our patients and their families experience their best possible days by supporting services like charity care, pet therapy, massage and Reiki, music therapies and our Waud Family Healing Garden. Your help also allows us to serve as a community resource, offering public events like chaplaincy training and talks on veteran concerns at the end of life.
As a member of the Volunteer Department, my work centers around coordinating our volunteers and their information. This means maintaining volunteer data and paperwork as well as coordinating activities such as Knit Wits and copy projects.
Sometimes you're given a chance in your work to do something that's completely a labor of love. That's what serving as Midwest CareCenter's We Honor Veterans coordinator is for me. As the granddaughter of a WW I Army Veteran and the daughter of a WW II Navy veteran, I learned early in life to respect unquestioning commitment to a cause, and a willingness to endure personal sacrifice for a "greater good." Because that's what is asked of―and delivered by―our nation's veterans.
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.