The Compassionate End

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Donald Christensen
  • 22nd Aerospace Medical Squadron commander
Recently, a popular television show featured a song entitled, "Unlike Me" including the lyrics "There are no guarantees in life, not for the present, nor for the future." When I first heard these words, I not only saw it as a neat-sounding phrase, but also a statement of some truth.

However, upon further reflection, I disagreed with having no guarantees in the future. All of us have at least one guarantee in life. All of us will end this life in death. Someday, each human body will cease all vital functions. It is inevitable, and we have no option. What is an option is how we deal or cope with the guarantee of our own death, or how a family deals with the loss of a loved one.
My family recently experienced the emotional rollercoaster that comes with a death in the family when my brother passed away with lung cancer.

My brother was diagnosed three years ago with terminal lung cancer and informed, at best, he would live only one to two years with treatment. Upon reaching his two year post-diagnosis date, he was convinced he'd beaten the disease and his life would continue for years to come. He had hope; he had big hope, as did we.

Despite receiving what we believed to be the best medical care possible, his disease worsened late in the third year of treatment. During this time he often made statements about past family memories, personal life goals and old friends. Eventually, he spoke about the possibility of dying; although his hope remained.

With worsening symptoms and frequent hospitalizations, he let the family know he was not going to give up the fight against his disease and asked the family not to give up on him. Specifically, he emotionally stated he would never go to or seek care in a hospice. He believed that "hospice" in any sense of the word was synomonous with giving up hope. We, of course, kept true to his desire, but only for a while. Eventually, his pain became too great to bear, and he was intermittently sedated for the last three weeks of his life.
When matters of his personal care got too great for the family, and care provided by a major university hospital became less personal, the topic of an inpatient hospice care was brought to our attention. Immediately, due to my brother's desire, we declined to even speak about it. However, with frequent prodding on the topic by the medical team, the family caved in and approved a inter-hospital transfer to an inpatient hospice unit. That was where my brother took his last breath, in a place he specifically never desired to go, no matter how bleak the situation seemed. However, the 10 days he was in Hospice, he received the most compassionate, loving and gentle nursing care I have ever seen. Having been in the healthcare industry for more than 20 years, I have seen quite a bit of nursing/medical care, and the care he received in hospice was absolutely phenomenal.

My family remains very satisfied in making the final decision to utilize such specialty hospice care, even though it went against my brother's desire. All of us should be so fortunate to have that sort of professional compassionate care as life draws to a close.

Years ago medical education focused strictly on a "cure" for disease. Thankfully, more recent medical training has incorporated an added focus of holistically caring for individuals through their entire lifespans. Hospice care really embodied the care for my brother by optimizing comfort and offering emotional support.

My family often referred to the hospice nurses as "angels of mercy" for the genuine comfort and care they provide to patients on a daily basis. My family cannot thank them enough. Their actions and bestowed love shown to my brother will always be remembered.

My family was fairly clueless about the available comprehensive services a hospice can provide. In many ways, we had the same thoughts about a hospice my brother had. Our wonderful experience has now debunked any previous myths we had regarding hospice care. You are not simply set aside to die; you are compassionately cared for and supported through all levels of health with respect and dignity. Services can either be provided as daily home visits or as inpatient care where the majority of the compassionate care is provided by those angels of mercy - the nurses. Personally, my heart has been touched, and I am so impressed with hospice care that my post-military employment may well be in the management of hospice care.

I sincerely hope that in some small way this story has disproved some of the common myths about hospices - myths which could prevent our loved ones from receiving the dignity and comfort of such care. The more we understand about hospice care, the more we can work to preserve it for a time that we or someone we love may need it.

Remember, there are guarantees in life.