Hannabelle's Special Day

Hannabelle Waith had a special day last week. In addition to laughing and talking with family and friends and praying with members of her East Elmhurst church, the 92-year-old Queens resident also got to star in a video -- her first time on camera. The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization had asked if they could tell her story as a part of a new awareness campaign called "Moments of Life." It was a little more excitement than Hannabelle was used to, but her energy didn't wane as she sat and shared her thoughts in the home she's lived in for the past 50 years -- the same home where she expects to live her final days.

What brought this all about was the decision Hannabelle and her family made to start hospice earlier rather than later. After talks with her doctors, it was clear that further curative care for her condition was not going to extend her life, and that continuing her treatments would involve discomfort and hospitalization that were not how she wanted to experience this final chapter of a life well-lived. The switch from curative care to hospice meant that the emphasis would be on helping her have the best day possible, every day, surrounded by loved ones, friends and compassionate hospice workers who bring her joy, comfort and peace of mind. When NHPCO asked me if I knew of someone who might wish to participate, Hannabelle immediately came to mind.

At Hannabelle's side on this special video day were two of my colleagues, Hospice Nurse Luis Leighton and Social Worker, Joel Karlin, both of whom have cared for Hannabelle since she was referred to VNSNY Hospice and Palliative Care a few months ago. Together with a chaplain, a home health aide and a VNSNY Hospice volunteer, they make sure that Hannabelle is doing well medically, emotionally and spiritually, and that she is comfortable and safe in her home. Not surprisingly, they have become part of her family in many ways: Hospice care is an especially intimate and personal endeavor, and the bonds form quickly.

On this day, surrounded by many of the people who mean so much to her, Hannabelle was happy to tell stories, crack jokes, sing a little and connect with those she loves. "Aunt Belle," as she's known in the neighborhood, has lived in East Elmhurst for more than half a century. Besides her deep involvement in her church, she has been a babysitter for many kids in the neighborhood and helped raise her nieces and nephew, who now have grown children of their own. Despite having had no children of her own, Hannabelle is the matriarch of a big family, all of whom were more than happy to be at her bedside trading stories of the lifetime she's spent helping them and others over the course of her "wonderful life."

"Hers is an incredible life -- it's a joy to be around her," says Nicky Yates, a volunteer with VNSNY Hospice who spends time with Hannabelle every week, sometimes just listening and remembering the many wonderful things she has done in her life: world travels and mission work for her church, lifetime membership in the NAACP, work with the National Action Network and many other organizations. She is still active and a positive force in her community even though she doesn't get out much these days. "She has so much love for other people," says Mrs. Eloise McGlockling, an old friend from her church.

Hannabelle's story illustrates the benefits that early utilization of Hospice care can bring to individuals and their families. I wanted to share the story with you here because I know that many families and even doctors and healthcare professionals sometimes resist a shift from curative care thinking that engaging hospice means "giving up."

For example, only 22 percent of chronically ill New Yorkers, where Hannebelle lives, enrolled in hospice service in their last six months compared with the national average of 51 percent. That is truly a shame. There are so many positive stories of people who are able to live out their final weeks and months with dignity and comfort because compassionate and highly trained hospice teams are there to provide comprehensive care, from pain management and skilled nursing to help with processing personal end-of-life goals and emotions. When fear of death causes people to wait until their final days to seek hospice care, there is less that can be done to help bring peace and comfort.

Special days like Hannabelle's are part of an approach to life that honors her priorities and reinforces her joy at having lived "a wonderful life." And that joy is shared with everyone she touches. As her nurse Luis puts it, "When Hospice is here, a family can step out of the caregiver role and take time to just be a family again, honoring the richness of life that has brought them all together for this brief time on earth."