Last December I had the pleasure of visiting a retired artist and teacher. His advanced prostate cancer left him with pain throughout his body, and his bladder spasms and infections had helped to slowly cease his social life. He was referred to music therapy services to elevate his mood and lessen social isolation, to promote reminiscence, story-sharing, and life review, and to refocus him away from feelings of pain and discomfort. As with all clients who I see for music therapy, I have the wonderful challenge of finding how music interventions can assist in easing identified symptoms. Knowing that the brain can only take in so much information at once, using Brian’s* preferred music held his attention and engaged him in enjoyable and meaningful moments, pulling his focus away from his pain. The perception of his pain and discomfort lessened as we sang together and talked about the music he loved throughout his life.
Life and Death
Mary and her husband Bob are, it seems, glued at the hip, two bodies with one soul. They remind me of my parents who are also in their early nineties, failing in health after living fulfilled, long and good lives, coming from similar backgrounds, with A LOT of kids (eight), a Catholic upbringing and of course, hoping to live forever.
As her massage therapist, I visit Mary, who has congestive heart failure and dementia. Mary has been declining fast and losing her hearing, so I often place my iPhone music right down next to her so she can feel the vibrations. She always smiles. I tell her at each visit that she looks just like the gorgeous Hollywood diva Lana Turner, and she smiles again.
“The past is gone, the future is not yet here. If we do not go back to ourselves in the present moment, we cannot be in touch with life.” ̶ Thich Nhat Hanh
Before I came to work as a social worker at JourneyCare, I was a volunteer for many years. During that time, I visited with a hospice patient, who I will call Susan. Susan was in her 50s and had ovarian cancer. One day she shared with me that she had been an avid golfer and that she was feeling sad that she would never golf again. I asked her if she would like me to take her to the driving range and she lit up. Her family was pretty nervous about the idea, but Susan said to all of us, “I want to live until I die.”
I joined the JourneyCare Foundation five weeks ago, helping the Foundation raise funds to cover uncompensated care. Because I’m not a clinician and I don’t work in any of our other patient or family facing departments, I quickly realized that in order to be most effective, I needed to find a way to keep patients front and center in my mind and never lose sight of my “why” for being at JourneyCare. I brought in a photo of my Nana who passed away eight years ago after seven years of round-the-clock care by my family. We didn’t know about hospice or palliative care services. I joined JourneyCare because I want to help ensure other families don't go through such a physically and emotionally painful ordeal alone.
In my short time at JourneyCare, I’ve discovered that we go over and above to provide extra care and services that patients and their families don’t even realize they need or want, but which help provide comfort. One of these extras has been particularly impactful on me.
As a palliative care nurse practitioner, I get an opportunity to meet a variety of patients that are at differing stages of their lives. A new patient, who I’ll call Caroline, recently taught me that we should never ever make up our plan of care before we meet the person.
What I read about Caroline made me think I was about to meet somebody who was dying.
Choosing hospice care doesn’t mean giving up hope — you are in fact redefining it.
While those who choose hospice accept that further medical treatment almost certainly won't help them, they also choose to redirect their hope into mending and restoring relationships, spending quality time with those they love, and finding peace and comfort.
A few years ago, while watching 'Law & Order,' I thought, “I’d make a terrible witness; I never notice anything.” So I decided to pay closer attention to my surroundings, at least while walking my dogs in the woods. This would help my art, too, I felt.
At first, I noticed trees, discovering that, for me, trees with broken or damaged bark offered more interesting compositions. But I gradually realized that a scarred trunk and missing bark exposed the beating heart of the living creature, and its vulnerability. I began to feel compassion and affection for the trees in the forest preserve.
JourneyCare volunteer Steve Crews was a lifelong writer and communicator. He worked as a reporter with the Chicago Tribune, deputy press secretary with former Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne, an executive with two international public relations firms, and head of communications with Hallmark Cards and later, with Alberto Culver Corp. He was an Army vet, married and the father of two.
Steve was a much beloved JourneyCare volunteer who was always willing to do anything we asked of him. He was a patient care volunteer, a reception volunteer at two different desks on two different days, sat on our Veterans’ Advisory Council, helped at community health fairs and wrote numerous posts for our JourneyCare blog.
Steve died in November in our care, with friends and family nearby.
Below is the last piece Steve wrote for us, which his family is allowing us to share in his honor.
He is greatly missed.
Like My Uncle Ed
When I die, I want to go like my uncle Ed, a quiet guy with a blue-collar job at a local newspaper and a love of fresh water fishing. He was a man who never got excited. Pleased? Impatient? Sure. He was not without emotion. But excited? Not that I ever saw. Still, sitting in his chair, sipping an Edelweiss beer and reading the paper, he was always in control. If a problem arose, he was the one who solved it.
I am nine years old, standing wide-eyed, frozen in the darkened hallway by the closed door to my parent’s bedroom. My mother is inside, gasping the words to the 23rd Psalm. Something is terribly wrong. Terribly wrong. I don’t know what it is, and I don’t ask. She’s been sick for more than a year, spending more time in bed as the months pass and recently, oxygen tanks were hauled up to her bedside.
You are dying.
I have reviewed the Cat Scans, spoken to the specialists, and studied the labs. There are many possible treatments that could be offered, but I fear they will not stem the course of all that is happening already. The tumor is too advanced, the metastases, too malignant.
I know there are many questions about chemotherapy, radiation, and feeding tubes. I would caution you to think of death as the inevitable endpoint. There are many things we can do between now and that endpoint. Some will increase your life expectancy, and some will cause pain and discomfort. The trick is to decide what is more important to you: quantity vs quality.