‘To be in a room with that much love — it's priceless’

by RACHEL SUN
Staff Writer | November 15, 2020 1:00 AM

SANDPOINT — Anne Ross doesn’t think about death the same way she used to.

As a volunteer hospice worker for over a decade, she said, the work profoundly impacted the way she views, and talks about, death.

Anne hadn’t planned to volunteer when she was first introduced to hospice, she said. When she first stepped foot into Bonner Community Hospice over 11 years ago, it was with her mother-in-law — a woman who had recently experienced a loss in California.

“I just couldn't believe how compassionate they were,” she said. “I had suffered some loss in my life, a husband and a fiance, and I had never received any kind of grief support. So to see this in action, I definitely wanted to be a part of it.”

Often, hospice has a bad connotation said Tami Feyen, RN hospice manager. Despite offering a wide variety of services to people with terminal ailments and their families, hospice is often overlooked.

“I know a lot of people think ‘wow, hospice, that's dark. You know, who would ever want to [do that], or find joy in that,’” Tami said. “But the reality is, it is really beautiful. It is just such a gift to be able to be at someone's bedside, and work with them through the process of their decision making and seeing those things that are most important to them come forward and be executed as they move through their journey.”

The role of hospice

Most clients who come into hospice care are individuals with a terminal diagnosis of six months or less to live. Clients are often referred by their doctors, and hospice services are covered by Medicare and Medicaid and many private insurances.

The range of services hospice offers go far beyond what many people might expect, Tami said. Some include help with pain management or caregiving. But another role of hospice, she said, is to help clients make the most of their time and help fulfill final wishes.

“We’ve had a tattoo party, someone who always wanted to get a tattoo, and the means to do that was not something that she had,” she said. “We've had people go on a last boat ride on Lake Pend Oreille, because that's where their heart and soul is.”

Other times, she said, the hospice reunited estranged families and helped people share final moments with their parents. The work isn’t just comfort care, she said.

“There’s a lot of psychosocial, spiritual, emotional support that goes into our care,” she said. “It's truly the most unique specialty that I could ever think of being involved in.”

Stories from hospice care

On Anne’s first hospice case, she said, she came to spend time with an elderly man in an assisted living facility. His daughter had requested hospice care, although her father’s physical needs were already taken care of. So, Anne said, she would visit, and the two would watch golf on television.

“I wasn't really sure why I was there, because obviously, they have a staff,” she said. “One time when I left, he said, 'I enjoyed you today.' And we had hardly spoken, but just having a person, you know, a presence there … that connection [makes a difference].”

Recently, Anne said, hospice helped people in her own life. Only a few weeks ago her aunt, who lived in Chicago, passed, she said. But before she did, a hospice with similar services to Bonner General’s helped her make the most of her last few months.

“My mom and my aunts all had a happy hour at five o'clock, a cocktail party, where they had a drink and [had] some fancy hors d'oeuvres. And they had an early Thanksgiving,” Anne said. “My sister arranged a Zoom cocktail party where all of her nieces and nephews got to see her and she got to ask us all questions. And she and her sisters usually would go up to northern Wisconsin in the fall to see the colors. And this year, the sisters came to her house and they had a fish fry, a prime rib dinner, and played games and laughed. And that was the weekend before she passed away.”

Mary Faux, a local resident, said her husband received hospice care after a referral from his doctor.

“I thought, he’s just saying that, my husband is going to live,” she said. “That was a Tuesday, and hospice came several times in the 11 days that he lived.”

During that time, she said, the staff helped her, her husband, and her daughter immensely.

“It made his death more tolerable,” she said. “Even if you feel like he’s not going to die immediately or even within six months, the comfort that they bring to you is so rewarding.”

Rusty McKitrick, a home health aide and staff member, also came to the hospice after seeing their work firsthand. One particular patient she helped, a young man with cancer, stands out.

“He was fairly young, his wife and he had been fighting this for quite some time. They were very hopeful that the cancer — they had beat it, that the cancer was gone after the last surgery. He was in therapy doing very well, and all of a sudden he hit a wall and took a spiral downwards,” she said. “He was had been sitting in a recliner for two days, in too much pain, his wife couldn't get him out of the recliner. So we were able to get his pain under control. Get him out of the recliner. And he was comfortable and happy by the time I left. Joking, telling jokes, just really being able to be part of his family and do things. It made me feel good to be part of that.”

The work can be heartbreaking, Rusty said. But it’s also incredibly meaningful, to her as much as the people she helps.

“I think they probably impact my life and give my life meaning as much as I do them. They're just — they will always be a part of my life, whether they're here or not, [and] I will always remember them,” she said.

Serving the community

Every year, Bonner General Hospice serves about 150 clients through end-of-life care, Tami said.

Right now, it is often being used almost as an emergency service, she said.

“So many people aren't seeing their providers right now,” she said. “So what we're seeing right now, with ever more increase, is very, very end of life referrals the last hours the last days. And that's so unfortunate because that person and that family do not get to really journey through their end of life in a healthy way.”

When hospice is brought in earlier, she said, there can be big benefits to families as much as the patient.

Tami recalled a young mother years ago who was dying of cancer and wanted to leave messages for her four children as they grew up. She had lost the ability to write, and so the hospice stepped in.

“We just kind of developed a means to have her record her letters to her kids in her own voice,” Tami said. “This is way back when, and I know we could do it so easy now, but it was kind of a feat back then. And so having that gift to her children was really pretty awesome.”

In addition to the roughly 150 clients, the nonprofit hospice also serves around 700 community members a year through grief and bereavement programs. They also host camp for children who have lost loved ones, and both group and one-on-one counseling free to the community, regardless of whether someone has been connected with hospice before.

Anne, who took one of the grief classes with her daughter a few years ago, said the program helped them both talk more openly about her late husband’s passing.

“[It] had a profound effect on our relationship and the way we viewed his death,” she said.

‘A good death’

Not every story is happy, Anne said. People suffer tragic deaths. But the support they get from hospice can help people have control over how they live the rest of their life, and help families to find peace.

Before coming to the hospice, Anne said, she didn’t talk about death so openly. Death, she said, was only something sad. During the last decade, she said, her work with the hospice has shifted that perspective.

“[Years ago], my first husband passed away, and he died in a hospital. And I had a dear friend with me. And after he died, she said, ‘I've never been at a death, but it is just as beautiful as birth.’ And I thought she was crazy … I didn't see it. But now that I've been working with hospice, I see it clearly. It's all about the love, you know, in a room where this family is just loving this person as they leave their lives,” Anne said. “We commemorate all these special occasions in our lives. birth, first day of school, graduation, marriage, anniversaries, but nobody talks about a good death. Maybe that sounds morbid, but to be in a room with that much love — it's priceless.”

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(Photo courtesy TAMI FEYEN)

The Memorial wall is filled with the names of those who have passed.

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(Photo courtesy TAMI FEYEN)

The family tree, located in the Healing Garden, commemorates children who passed. It is the collaborative work of community members, artist and Hospice volunteer Betty Gardener and Bonner General Health Community Hospice. The leaves display the child's name and their date of birth. Anyone wishing to add a leaf in memory of a child or a name on the Memorial Wall is invited to do so. There is a $50.00 donation is suggested to add a leaf to the family tree, and a $100 donation suggested for the Memorial Wall. Funds go toward Bonner Community Hospice. Bonner Community Hospice can be reached at 208-265-1179.