Transitioning from full-time church ministry to hospice work over four years ago was not an easy task. HIPAA laws, medical records and plans of care were all completely foreign concepts to me. And let us not forget the documentation aspect of healthcare. After all, “If you didn’t document it, it didn’t happen!” I’m not 100% sure, but I think there might just be a crown in heaven dedicated for those medical professionals who keep up with their documentation.
Also, those meetings where conversations regarding the human body often carry the same everyday tone as a conversation about where to go to lunch? Yeah, I wasn’t quite ready for that. Not only do I feel like I could pass an A&P exam having never taken the class, I also feel like a battle-hardened conversation warrior because now, almost nothing embarrasses me (This is only after many, MANY flushed, red faces though).
The ministry of hospice has changed me, and I would argue that it has been for the better. It has made me more aware of death, more compassionate towards those experiencing difficult times and more thankful for each and every day above ground – and I plan on writing more about all of this in the near future.
The goal of this post however, is to tell you about a special moment that had a profound impact on my life, and still does as I continue to help care for seniors.
I had been making scheduled visits all day at skilled nursing facilities and stopped to see one of my regular patients. We will call her Mary. Mary possessed solid family support as evidenced by the fresh cards and new pictures I observed at each visit. She also was apparently a woman of faith as her personal Bible, well-worn form use, laid on her nightstand. Mary’s room was always neat, clean and orderly. Mary couldn’t tell me much about herself however. Actually, she couldn’t tell me anything. Mary had that dreaded disease that robs so many of the lively spirit they once knew… Alzheimer’s. She was nonverbal, not cognitive and was unresponsive to any verbalization encouragements. Her eyes were always fixed with a far-away glance, and her mouth stayed open. Mary was just… there.
Due to Mary being non-communicative, our visits were usually pretty simple. I’d talk to her about her day, the weather, and her family. I’d read some Scripture verses to her. I’d sing to her too as I often do with many of my patients. But as you can imagine, there was never any response as she’d continue to stare off without any sign of cognition.
This day, I was getting ready to close the visit with a word of prayer as I almost always do. I held Mary’s hand, prayed aloud, and then told her that it was good to see her and that I would be back soon. As I bid her farewell, something surprising happened… this non-communicative, non-responsive patient gripped my hand. Thinking this was just a coincidence, I reiterated my “goodbye” routine, and attempted to leave once more, only… Mary gripped my hand again, and this time, she would not let go.
Somewhat in shock, I petitioned Mary to grip my hand twice if she could, in fact, hear me. She did just that, and exhibited two definite, successive signs that this woman could actually hear me. Still astonished, I then asked her if she would like for me to stay with her and provide her company for a while. Mary gripped my hand tightly once more. Overcome with emotion, I positioned my chair beside Mary, and simply sat and held little hand for some time. After about twenty minutes, I asked her if it was okay for me to go. She then released my hand.
I’ll admit that when I got back in my car to leave the facility, I had a good man-cry. Having experienced what I just experienced, I couldn’t help but think about how frustrating it must be for these little patients who want so badly to communicate with us, but cannot. Because I have a voice, I am unable to wrap my mind around the idea of me wanting to say something, but being physically unable to say it. The level of depression that these people must experience in their mind and/or consciousness has got to be overwhelming to say the least.
I say all of that to say this.
Remember the elderly.
Remember their pain.
Remember, they were once young too.
Remember, they each have a story.
Remember, they deserve dignity.
Remember, they can really hear you.
Lastly, remember to treat them like you will want to be treated one day. Listen to Christ’s beloved words from the gospel of Luke, And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.
P.S. If you have family in an assisted living facility or skilled nursing facility, please go by and see them. They need you.