It was on a typically crazy day that we admitted a 60-year-old patient, Mr. D., after he suffered a heart attack. He was very sick, but I still remember him wiggling his toes and winking at me – even in his critical condition. That brown-eyed glittery look told me, “If he makes it, he’s going to be a real pistol.” Mr. D. had a supportive family – several children – who, amid the stress, beeping and intense emotions of the CCU, made it abundantly clear they loved and adored their father.
I was at Mr. D.’s bedside one day during his slow but steady recovery, when he unexpectedly had a cardiac arrest. Fortunately, I was able to successfully apply the defibrillator paddles and rapidly reverse his lethal arrhythmia. It could have been another day in the life at the CCU, but a comment from our hospital chaplain stuck with me. He said, “How many people go home and say, ‘I saved a life today?’” At the time I laughed it off – just part of the job, you know? That day it dawned on me that mine was a profession of art and science bound together with a reverence for life. That day I began to see my work as a calling, not a job. And I found that thought extremely humbling.
Even decades later, that father, Mr. D., and his family remain an integral part of my health care story. When I first met them and worked in the CCU, my job was to take care of his immediate physiologic needs. Mr. D.’s wife and children provided the emotional care and love they knew he needed. I began to see him not just as a critically ill patient – but a father whose recovery depended on the support of his family as much as my skilled nursing care. The experience was the catalyst that helped me realize how care can be more than the life and death drama of CCU – care involves the whole patient and family unit.
Over time my career developed and, 20 years later, I was the CEO of a hospice program in Chicago. You can imagine my surprise when one day I received a call from one of Mr. D.’s daughters. She shared that after cheating death twice decades earlier, her dad’s health had declined and he needed the extra care of hospice.
While Mr. D. still had the same family love and support, he again needed skilled nursing care, and the whole family needed the support and care hospice provides.
I learned from his family that Mr. D. loved his home, his privacy, his view of Lake Michigan and his pets. He wanted to die in his own bed and most of all, he wanted to be with his family, surrounded by the people he loves. He wanted to hold his bride’s hand until the end.
I laughed when I heard that Mr. D. told his family that the last time he nearly died, I got in the way and he was so glad I did. I was humbled again, knowing that I would help him feel safe and prepared for the death he was ready to experience. Under hospice care, Mr. D. lived for several more months. But rather than spending his final months in a hospital CCU, thanks to hospice, he was able to spend that time comfortable in his home, surrounded by his family, looking out at the lake that he loved.
As more and more Americans struggle with serious, advanced and terminal illness, it is imperative that patients like Mr. D. and his family have the benefit of timely access to high quality, comprehensive hospice care.
When I said goodbye to Mr. D. at his funeral Mass, I took much comfort knowing the full circle of his life and the part that I played in it. In that moment, I surely felt him winking down on me, almost as if he was saying, “This time was the right time,” and, “Thank you for the extra time to be a father.”
Patricia Ahern, RN, MBA, FACHE, is President and CEO of Care Dimensions based in Danvers, Mass.
Since 1978, Care Dimensions has provided comprehensive and compassionate care for individuals and families dealing with life-threatening illnesses. As the non-profit leader in advanced illness care, we offer services in over 100 communities in Massachusetts.