Learning To Live From The Dying: Part 2

My second hospice patient was Vera.  She was 94 when she had a stoke earlier this year.  Her family had decided that she was ready for hospice care.  I came in 3 weeks after her stroke.  Her primary caregiver is her husband Bill who is 96 and a WWII veteran.  While Bill is legally blind he still walks 2 miles a day by himself.   

When I arrived for my first shift as Vera’s caregiver she was obviously disoriented and afraid.  She had been a vigorous 94-year-old until her stoke three weeks earlier.  She and her husband were inveterate hikers even though they could no longer hike to the bottom of Grand Canyon which they did many times in their seventies and early eighties.  She obviously loves her home which she has filled with New Mexican and Native American art.

Vera had to use a wheelchair because she was unable to use her right arm or leg.  On my first visit I introduced myself and helped her move to a comfortable chair in the dining room for dinner.  She panicked when I helped her with a “lift” that brought her to her feet where she needed to support herself on her right leg while I rotated her to enable her to sit in the chair.  She froze and only with great effort was I able to rotate her.

My shift was from 4:30 to 8:30 in the evening and part of my job was to prepare dinner for Vera and Bill.  I quickly learned that eating a tasty meal was very important for them.  Vera really relaxed over a good meal.  Since I love to cook for others and have had little opportunity to cook since my husband’s death I learned what they enjoyed and started making corn bread and pies and creating dishes that they liked.  They spent the bulk of the evening at the dining room table drinking wine and eating.  At first Vera couldn’t talk very well but in a few weeks she was speaking distinctly and enjoying conversation.  The three of us would reminisce about hiking and foreign travels.  They would talk about their early life together.

After a few weeks it became clear that Vera had every intention to get over the stroke.  I and the other caregivers would encourage her to support herself when she stood and she began to walk with a walker,  just a few hesitant steps at first.  Vera continued to sleep most of the day but gradually gained strength.  Her decision to get well was clear in her determination to overcome her fears and relearn the motor skills she had lost due to the stroke.  I watched in amazement as she progressed.  Her mental and spiritual resilience were like nothing I had ever seen.  I suppose part of it was that she wasn’t worn down by a long illness like most hospice patients.  But I also think Vera’s faith, her family support and her love of her home played an enormous role in her determination to recover. 

While I gave Vera the support she needed to recover she gave me something much more precious.  She showed me how to value the life you have however severely modified by loss or suffering and embrace it.  I watched in awe as this valiant woman fought her way back when her doctors said she was ready to die.  She doesn’t know how long she has but she is going to make the best of whatever time is left.

One evening when I was helping her move from a chair to her wheelchair she was unable to support herself  and collapsed.  I was able to keep her from falling but I injured my back supporting her.  Since then I have spent my time recovering from a slipped disc and my doctor has told me that I can no longer do hospice work.  This saddens me because I got so much from my clients and miss them deeply.   I am honored, however, to known them. 

Vera’s example has encouraged me to think about how I can use the same courage she showed to move forward in my life.  Her spirit and her faith helped heal my soul.

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