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Patient Stories

Lifetime of Learning Enters New Phase with Hospice

Education always has been at the center of Charlotte Mason’s life.

The daughter of a professor, Charlotte grew up in several New England college towns and spent her high school senior year in France. After teaching high school history for several years, she ran an exchange program between the Newton, MA, public schools and an elite school in Beijing, China. She received a grant to take the program national, and for 20 years Charlotte set up school leader exchanges between U.S. states and Chinese provinces.

A world traveler and avid reader, Charlotte shared a wealth of knowledge with her colleagues, family, friends, and multiple book groups. Three years ago, at age 75, she was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Charlotte wanted to learn all she could about her disease and this new phase of her life.

She stayed in close touch with her oncologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. She tried to maintain her favorite activities like tennis, sailing, and traveling while receiving chemotherapy, but slowed down more as her disease progressed. To help manage her symptoms, she received palliative care from Dana-Farber alongside curative treatment. She craved more information about what the future may hold.

“I started reading memoirs and other books about dying to understand more about how my family and I could deal with this huge, new challenge in my life,” Charlotte recalled. “I found reading about dying to be cathartic, and therefore, talking about my eventual death would become easier.”

Late in 2022, when treatment was no longer effective, Dana-Farber doctors recommended hospice for Charlotte. She didn’t know much about hospice but recalled a friend spoke favorably about a relative’s experience with Care Dimensions, so she chose them.

Learning about hospice

Unsure what to expect about having hospice at home, Charlotte soon was pleasantly surprised when she learned she’d have access to an entire team, including regular visits from a nurse, social worker, and chaplain. A massage therapist and hospice doctor also visit occasionally.

“I’m Impressed that the doctor has come to see me at home,” said Charlotte. We’ve talked about alternative pain medications I may take when the need arises, and it’s very reassuring.”

“We talked through all of Charlotte’s concerns,” said Emma Jones, MD, Care Dimensions hospice and palliative care physician. “She wanted to know if I knew about her type of cancer and was in contact with her doctor at Dana-Farber. I told her that I discussed her case with her oncologist and could review her records, which seemed to reassure her.”

“What works best for me is talking to everybody on the team and learning as much as I can about what they can offer,” said Charlotte. Social Worker Erin Colgan-Snyder helps by eliciting her concerns, so they can talk about them. “He is very helpful when I am anxious by helping me talk about what I am feeling,” Charlotte said.

Each week, Charlotte alternates visits from Erin and Chaplain Margaret Hutchinson because they bring different approaches to dealing with illness and death.

“I wasn’t sure about including a chaplain on my hospice care team because I’m not a religious person,” said Charlotte. “Margaret is a Buddhist and brings an unusual quality of mindfulness to our sessions. I really appreciate her. Before we met, I was reading books about death and dying. She added some others, which have made it easier to talk about and to envision.”

“Charlotte has done a beautiful job of utilizing the whole team,” noted Margaret. “She’s approaching end of life with the same intellectual curiosity, insight, courage, and discernment with which she’s lived her whole life.”

Living with an advanced illness

Charlotte refers to the current phase of her life as “living while dying,” and says talking about her end-of-life journey makes it less alarming.

“Margaret also encourages life review, which makes me realize what an interesting life I’ve had,” said Charlotte. “It gets me through my days. Instead of dreading the end, I try to live each day as fully as I can. I reminisce about wonderful times, family, and work experiences. Life review gives me great appreciation for what I have experienced.”

These days, instead of traveling to Asia, Europe, or the South Pacific, Charlotte is happy taking a short ride to Cambridge with her husband, Philip.

“I focus on small, attainable hopes to help make the most of each day,” said Charlotte, who cites The Anatomy of Hope by Jerome Groopman, MD, as an important influence. “Philip and I go out every day – not far, but even just a short drive helps lighten the load.”

Her husband and children appreciate how hospice has helped Charlotte, and them. “The team’s inclusive approach makes me more comfortable and helps me help Toddy (Charlotte),” said Philip.

“It helps me to know there are so many people available to her,” added Charlotte’s son, Nathaniel Mason. “She talks about her chaplain and social worker a lot, which helps the family discuss things that otherwise would be more difficult to address.”

Daughter Nicole Mason is comforted by the familiarity of seeing her mother in her own home so she can be with Philip and have friends and family visit.

“There are a lot of unknowns in the end of life, and at each turn Care Dimensions has provided my mother with resources to help meet her where she is,” said Nicole. “The team has wowed her with their responsiveness, follow-through, and knowledge. Her feeling supported is very important in this journey and Care Dimensions has been doing just that!”

Charlotte’s hospice nurse Jennifer Johnson visits each week to check Charlotte’s vital signs, discuss any symptoms she’s having, and work with Dr. Jones to manage those symptoms. “As her needs change, my visits will increase to continue to manage her symptoms to maintain her comfort,” said Jennifer. Charlotte knows that if her symptoms become too difficult to manage at home, she could go to the Care Dimensions Hospice House for hospital-level care.

“It’s hard to imagine going through this alone,” Charlotte reflected. “I am grateful to have my family, the Care Dimensions team, and my doctor at Dana-Farber. They all make me feel very supported.”

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Since 1978, Care Dimensions, formerly Hospice of the North Shore,  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.

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