Despite the Depressive nature of the topic at hand and slightly ominous title, I want to preface this article by stating that my intent in writing this is to share what I have gained from working with individuals during their last chapters in this life. Although a taboo topic, death is an inevitable part of life and there is infinite beauty to reflect on before that time comes. Here are their thoughts (names have been changed in order to protect privacy).
I never perceived myself as someone who would want to work in end of life care. In fact, that was never the plan. That was until I reached my Sophomore year of college and needed to obtain patient contact hours in order to apply to graduate school. I obtained certification and started the job search. That's when I found a job posting for a hospice/assisted living facility. I immediately applied. The pay was very well for someone in my position (very broke and in college) and I knew it would be a great opportunity to gain patient care experience.
Shortly upon my hire I wondered if I had made a huge mistake. I was working the night shift (usually alone) and also trying to manage going to school full time. But I decided to stick it out, and I'm incredibly thankful I did.
Rodney was a resident of the facility for several years prior to my hire. He was a kind and gentle man, short, often wore suspenders and a flat cap, and always had Billy Graham on the tiny tv centered above his dresser. When I reflect on Rodney, I can still hear the faint static sound from the TV and envision his mountainous collection of newspapers (likely dating back to the 1980s). Rodney suffered from Alzheimer's disease. He had a wife, children, and many grandchildren that he could no longer remember. Even though Rodney had little recollection of his previous years, one passion he never lost was his love for God and others. Every time I entered his room he eagerly asked me if i knew Jesus. I always responded with yes and told him I was also a christian. His smile would grow until he would quickly forget the conversation at hand.
The last time I saw Rodney shortly before his passing, he looked at me and said "I'll see you again someday" with such a sense of peace about his demeanor. I didn't know if he meant he would see me again at the facility or if somehow he had a sense that he was passing soon, but I would like to think that Rodneys faith carried him all the way until the end.
"I really don't need your help". This was often Betty's response whenever she did in fact need someone's help.
Betty was quite stubborn at heart; this was later verified by her children who informed me that it took them almost three years to convince her to enter an assisted living facility after her husband passed.
Two years after her husband passed away Betty suffered a severe stroke which resulted in partial paralysis and a permanent speech impairment. Despite her ailments, she remained astonishingly independent in the facility. A typical morning assisting Betty usually involved a thirty minute negotiation between us convincing her to let me help her get dressed as I feared her falling or worse. Although I didn't always appreciate the struggle exchanged I admired Betty's resilience and eagerness to start her day independently.
I still vividly remember my first interaction with Betty. It was my first night working on the floor her suite was located on. It was around 11pm when I began my first set of rounds (taking vitals/general wellness check) and Betty's room was my first stop. Upon knocking and entering the smell of Werther's caramel candy (ya know the candies our grandmas always had in their purses at church) and floral perfume brought me a since of comfort and nostalgia. I just knew she was someone's sweet grandmother. I immediately noticed an electric piano meticulously set up in front of her loveseat and a cassette player to the right of it. Upon closer inspection I realized all of the Cassette tapes and CDs had Betty's name and photos on them. "Were you a musician Mrs. Betty?" I eagerly asked her. "I still am" she stated back in a very bold and flat manner. Betty then shot me a grin that let me know she just enjoyed sarcasms and did not in fact hate me.
Betty loved to play her piano for me. Although both of her hands use to tell stories through the articulation of complex chords and melodies, one hand now laid paralyzed at her side while the other struggled to play a simple melody. Despite her frustrations with the daily tasks she physically struggled with, I never witnessed her displaying the same level of discouragement when she played. She was always just happy to play. I once asked Betty what it was like to play after losing so many of the functions that once flowed so naturally for her. She simply told me "I have to keep playing".
Sometimes, we just have to keep playing. That simple statement from Betty echoed so loudly for me in those moments. Although myself and my loved ones were thankfully healthy, I was in a season of struggle. I was working full time on the night shift, a full time student, and dealing with so many anxieties to the point where I wanted to quit. My experience was not a unique one. I think we all tend to let the trials in our present distract us from the joys in our present. Thankfully I did not throw in the towel; and neither did Betty.
Months later I left this facility and began working at a local hospital on an oncology floor. A part of my heart always remained with the residents at the facility after months of growing so close to them. They truly felt like family, but unfortunately I never had the opportunity to say goodbye to many of them before I left. Except Betty.
One early morning when I was doing my rounds at the hospital I entered a room to see a few family members surrounding a little dark haired lady in her bed. When I looked at the patient chart it was her name. Betty. I was dumbfounded that our paths had miraculously crossed again. What were the odds that she was my patient that day in a completely different hospital months later? I had to do a double take to confirm that it was her. It was Betty, but she was different this time. Betty was dying of end stage metastatic cancer. My heart broke for her. How can one woman endure so much?
I was able to recount endless stories of Betty during our time together at my previous job to her family. I was able to share all of our laughs, betty's stories, and ultimately everything betty taught me. Her family told me it brought them peace to hear the impact she had on myself and other staff during her time there, as they were not able to visit due to covid restrictions. I was honored to be a small part of Betty's story in the end.
I was there when Betty took her last breath, but I know her story didn't end there. She was a woman of faith. She often talked of being reunited with her husband and I know she found that peace. I'll always be grateful that Betty reminded me to keep on playing.