Our Journey Together
Jerry Hejka-Ekins – USA
Traditionally, the medical profession’s primary concern was to treat and relieve their patients’ suffering and, if possible, cure their ailments. However, technological advances have since made it possible, through extraordinary means, to indefinitely extend the functioning of a patient’s body. By the mid twentieth century, this new technology began to dominate the medical profession’s priorities: Sometimes to the exclusion of the family’s and the patient’s own wishes.
Around sixty years ago, Cicely Saunders, a registered nurse in England, in response to the medical field’s evolving policies, inaugurated a movement where respect for the patient’s, beliefs, wishes and emotional needs might again become paramount. It was her vision to create a therapeutic atmosphere where the patient’s wish for a comfortable passing in the company of their loved ones would again be honored. Her efforts eventuated into the Hospice movement, which has now become worldwide. Under Hospice, patients are provided with whatever physical, emotional and physical care is needed and desired in order to make them comfortable, but the extraordinary efforts to artificially keep them alive are not used.
My own experience with Hospice began in January of 2005 when Evelyn, my mother in law became terminally ill. My wife, April, and I previously knew about the Hospice movement. Accordingly, we requested that the hospital allow her to return home, under Hospice supervision, where she would be able to live out her last days in familiar surroundings with her family. Evelyn was back home around five-thirty that evening. We got her comfortably situated. By 10:30 she fell asleep. April and I watched over her through the night: The next morning, as the sun began to fill the room, she took her last breath. We lit a candle, closed the door, retired to the living room and cried.
After Evelyn’s passing, my interest in Hospice began to deepen and I took a volunteer training course. After ten weeks, I received my first assignment: to visit a family who was caring for their terminally ill father. Such visits were usually to the patient’s homes, where our main job is to give respite for the caretaking family members who may want to go to church, or just to get away for a while. Sometimes the family, for whatever reason, is unable to provide the care that the patient needs. It was under one of those situations that I was later assigned to Bill, a rather jovial man in his 70s. He was in a Hospice twenty-four hour care facility. We became immediate friends. We talked of his childhood on a farm, his wife and daughter and the current news. Over the weeks, his body began to weaken until he was no longer able to walk on his own. He remained in bed where we watched daytime television together. Over the weeks, I began to realize that I was his only visitor. It appeared that his family had abandoned him there. I never learned why. One day, I came in around lunch time. His tray of food was sitting at the side table, still untouched. “I’m not hungry” he said. I knew that loss of appetite is typical of those who are nearing their time of transition. So, I was careful not to push him. There was, however, a cup of pudding on the tray. I knew that he liked that kind of pudding, so I offered to assist him. I pulled up a chair close to the bed and opened the container. As I began to scoop out the pudding, I began to think about how much like a child we become as we near the end of our lives. Like a baby, in old age, our bodies become weak; we lose control of them and, once again, need assistance to eat and almost everything we do.
The next day I came in, his bed was empty. The nurse said that he had passed away the previous evening. His wife and daughter briefly appeared, collected his belongings, and silently left. I pulled up a chair and sat next to his empty bed. The TV we had watched together was silent, and the room somehow seemed a little darker.
Over the years, there have been many other assignments, but this simple meeting and quiet companionship with Bill came to represent the essence of what Hospice is about for me. It was an opportunity to realize through hands-on experience, the reality of humanity’s inner connectedness: that our responsibility extends beyond ourselves and our family, to everyone whom we come into contact, and even to those we never meet. Our purpose is to awaken from our self-centered dream of separateness; to learn the skills to do the work of healing for the benefit of others we meet along our path; to make the world a little better than it was when we came into it. Our very humanness is about the most basic act of being a companion to others; to share their joys and sadness is an important first step.
I have continued to do family visits, as well as taking up duties, in the office, and eventually, leading a support group for bereaved family members. But the lesson I learned from Bill has always remained with me—no matter what we do, the key to living a full and meaningful life is to be present with and responsive to those who come into our lives. Whatever needs to be done will become evident—even if it is simply being a companion to a very lonely man who has no one else. No one should be left to die alone.
The Buddha was recorded to have said that death is a condition of birth. But those self-evident words take on a deeper, more personal and profound meaning to those who have attended the birth of their children and the death of their loved ones. The joys we experience with others bring an appreciation for our lives, while our grief over our separation from them reminds us of our own mortality. Every moment brings us an opportunity to live, experience, learn, share and, most important, to love.