My dad is dying. We got word that his cancer was inoperable and he couldn't handle any more chemo or radiation. The doctors gave him three months at the most. That was last March, 6.5 months ago.
One of his doctors started sending a nurse to the house three times a week. She took his vitals and asked how he felt. How did he feel? Depressed. Scared. Angry. After her third visit, the nurse sat us all down and said that it was really useless for her to continue. What we really should look into was hospice.
Hospice. The word itself conjured up death watches and other unpleasant thoughts. I would always tune out when someone else would talk about it. I didn't want to know. Reluctantly, we said we'd check into it.
On the Southwest Suncoast of Florida, the largest hospice is Tidewell. After the idea was planted in my mind, I started asking around about it. Everyone who had been through the experience raved about Tidewell. Yes, I should definitely talk to the hospice people.
Well, we did. I was shocked when the Tidewell representative told us what hospice entails. First of all, it's not just for the dying, it's for the living as well. Specifically the families. My dad had told me that he didn't want to go back to a hospital or "some other place" to spend his final days. The hospice people told us that it was no problem for him to stay home. A lot of people make that decision. Whatever he needs, hospice will provide. Even if he needs a hospital bed, hospice will move one into the house.
There were certain conditions for enrolling in hospice: The patient can no longer go to the hospital (which was fine with my dad). No calling 911 for emergencies. Call them instead. No medicines for cancer treatment. It had already done its damage, why put my dad through ineffective and debilitating treatments? Made perfect sense. The hospice doctors would control his medications. By medications we're talking about painkillers, anti-anxiety, anti-depressives and appetite stimulators. My dad liked the sound of that. Everything sounded too good to be true, so we signed up. It was the smartest thing we ever did.
Dad is watched by a "team" of specialists. Teri, the team leader, comes to visit at least once a week. She is in charge of Dad's overall situation. She orders the pills, fills his pillbox so he takes the right ones on schedule, takes his vitals and most of all talks to him and the family. Teri is a comforting presence. She doesn't minimize what is going on, but she does it in such a way that puts us all at ease.
Katy is in charge of Dad's personal hygiene. She stops by three days a week to help him shower, shave (electrically) and do whatever Dad needs. Dad and Katy have a special relationship. They love to sing. Dad has taught her every Navy song from World War II and she has taught my dad a few contemporary hits. They even do "Chattanooga Choo Choo" complete with matching choreography. The highlight of each day is when Katy arrives. Her demeanor is uplifting and fun. Oh, and she's only in her 20s. A truly remarkable person.
Charlie comes once a week to give Dad a massage. These massages have become invaluable for Dad and he looks forward to his arrival every Tuesday. Charlie's demeanor is great. Having done this for countless other cancer patients, he knows just what to look for and how to relieve and explain the pain.
Kimberly is Dad's and our therapist. She calmly explains to anyone in the family who wants to talk to her about our fears, anxieties and problems with the situation we are in. A very soothing presence who knows just what to say and how to say it.
Tidewell even had a veteran come over and award my Dad for his service to our country. It might not sound like much, but trust me, it was a wonderful moment.
To say all of these people are saints is an understatement. They're not only doing this for my Dad, but countless others simultaneously. I don't know how my family could handle the situation without them.
A few months ago I asked Teri the average length she spends with a patient. She said five days to a week. However, she did have one patent who is starting his third year of hospice. Unfortunately, most people still believe that hospice is for the last few days of life. Nonsense. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Most people call on hospice way too late, when the situation is most dire. We were lucky to have a nurse tell us to start hospice early. I can honestly say that it is because of them Dad is going into his sixth month and still shows no sign of giving up.
Hospice is about dying with dignity. Being left alone in a hospital room is no way to go. Hospice is a very social, even fun experience. I don't associate hospice with death anymore. Yes, I know it will come eventually, but as they tell us, enjoy life while we still can. They give Dad the medicine to extend the quality of his life. While he is deteriorating at a slow speed, he still goes out to eat dinner once and a while. He eats like he's going to the electric chair (yes, we can laugh about the situation). He has his bad days, but those days would be much more numerous and a lot worse without hospice. (Teri and all the others are just a phone call away whenever we need them.)
As I go through this experience, I'm suddenly aware that the word "hospice" is all around us. A lot of people have been through the experience and like me, they have nothing but enthusiastic gratitude for the service and the people.
Getting my Dad to hospice early is the best thing we ever did. It has indeed extended his life and has reduced his pain and anxiety immeasurably. I thoroughly recommend starting hospice care as soon as possible. It's worth it. I no longer fear the word "hospice." In fact, I can't figure out how we did without it for so long.
For more by Stu Kreisman, click here.
For more on hospice, click here.