Sunday, July 24, 2011


I recently came across an article in the New York Times stating that Hospice services may be being misused in some cases.  Click here to read the article.

Of course, no one goes around saying they are fine with money or resources being wasted or a system being abused.  From my perspective, though, this article is an example of a very one-sided view, most likely one by someone who has never personally had to care for a critically ill loved one or to have support from Hospice.

What this article seems to be saying is that when a person who is on Hospice survives past the six-month point, he or she was not really a good candidate for the services received under Hospice care, and that they, their family, and/or the medical workers on their case either made a mistake or committed fraud.

According to this article, 19% of people on Hospice end up receiving those services for longer than the 6-month deadline (pun intended).  As if that is a crime or something for those people to be ashamed of!

Anyone who ends up having to make the very difficult decision to bring in Hospice gets my sympathy; it’s a path down which none of us ever wants to go.  But I will also offer an empathetic sigh of relief and a sideline cheer on their behalf, too, because I have been there – and because I know that Hospice is exactly what the health-care system in our country should be like.   I know that Hospice can make a difference when nothing else can, not necessarily in the amount of time a person has left but in the QUALITY – and that’s what counts!!  In fact, not just in the quality for the patient but for the entire family.  And that will make a difference not just for those involved during the time the patient has left but for them for the rest of their lives.

There are a lot of things that are sad about the dying process, but what’s scary it is that we don’t know what to expect and we cannot control what’s going on.  We are running out of time to be able to interact with our loved one who is so sick, and we have no idea what to say or do.  We need advice, guidance, help, and support from someone who does know, and that’s what Hospice is for. 

In my opinion, Hospice is the very best of health care; it means caring for one’s whole health, physical, emotional, and spiritual.  And in some cases, I can see where having those needs met - and getting out of a germy, stressful hospital and doctor’s offices and sometimes even getting away from medicines and treatments that can cause more problems than they are fixing – can make a person BETTER, at least for a little while longer, maybe even longer than six months.

From my perspective, it makes no sense to then to punish or to invoke guilt on the person who is fortunate enough to eek out some extra time, or their families, or anyone involved in their care.  Rather, we should give them a big shout-out, throw them a party, or hold a parade in their honor, because obviously they made the right choice in choosing Hospice.

And here is one thing to which I can attest without a sliver of a doubt:  others of us, whose loved one followed a more typical pattern of Hospice which, according to this article, is surviving only 17 days after beginning in a Hospice program, made the right choice, too.

When Dad got so weak a couple of weeks after his second round of treatment, we took him to the hospital, fearing that he’d had a stroke, which is one of the potential side-effects of the medicine he was taking.  An MRI indicated that the growth of the tumor in his brain had been halted by the protocol he was on at that point, but his blood work showed severe infection in his bloodstream and an extremely compromised immune system.  Even after receiving lots of antibiotics, anti-virals, anti-fungals, and a transfusion of both whole blood and platelets, he was still so weak that he could hardly lift his head, talk, or swallow.  He wanted to go home, and we could plainly see that was the only real option for him at that time. 

Like many families in our situation probably do, though, we started out thinking that signing him up for Hospice was the same as giving up.  So we did what we had to do:  we took baby steps, cried a lot, took turns being strong and decisive, and forged ahead, as always, with a Back-Up Plan:  we told ourselves that we were just going to “use” Hospice to get him home so that he could get stronger.  We said to ourselves and to each other repeatedly that Hospice is revocable at any time, and we were on such good terms with Denial that we fully believed that we would probably revoke it once we got things under control. 

I have never seen someone as relieved as Dad looked when we told him that he was going home the next day.  He said “the best” would be if he could leave right that second, but “almost the best” would be when he got home the next morning.  He tried to negotiate just how early he could leave the next day, but, for logistical reasons, the time had to be 11 a.m.

He, of course, slept “zero,” as he liked to quantify things, the night before, par for the course for him because of the massive amount of steroids he was on, and he must have asked at least 50 times what time it was and if it was time to go home yet.  He was so wound up and anxious by mid-morning that the nurse at the hospital gave him a sedative, which knocked him out for the ambulance ride and for pretty much the rest of the day.  I was grateful for his sake for the former but disappointed by the latter; I had envisioned him coming into his house with the biggest smile on his face, finally looking happy and feeling like he was where he wanted to be. 

Thinking he would want to be in the center of the activity going on in the house, we had opted to have the hospital bed set up in the den instead of the master bedroom. When he woke up, he was very disoriented.  He said, “You promised I was going home!” because he knew he wasn’t in his bed or in his bedroom.  He was trying so hard to get himself together, to rally, and to feel lucky or even just not to feel terrible and terrified. 

The Hospice nurse came soon after Dad got home, and my mom, my sisters, and I took turns sitting at the dining room table with her and sitting with Dad.  We wanted him home, but we still weren’t sure the Hospice decision was the right one.  More than anything, we wanted to protect Dad, and we thought that part of doing that was not letting him think we had called Hospice because we had given up Hope.

But as we exchanged information with the nurse, we realized that we weren’t giving up, we were gaining – gaining some control over an out-of-control situation, gaining knowledge, gaining allies in meeting our goal for Dad, which was keeping him from hurting or being afraid.  We had found the Captain of the ship that our Plan had been lacking, and that made such a difference.  We were still heartbroken and in shock, but we were in this together, finally with exactly the kind of support needed by Dad and us, and we were as armed as we could be to care for him.  Instead of having to fight, beg, question, and monitor as we did in the hospital, we were able just to hold his hand and talk to him even when he couldn’t talk back anymore.

When all the world is a hopeless jumble
And the raindrops tumble all around,
Heaven opens a magic lane
When all the clouds darken up the skyway,
There's a rainbow highway to be found
Leading from your window pane
To a place behind the sun,
Just a step beyond the rain.

Although there are obviously things we would change about what happened during Dad’s illness that might have contributed to his rapid decline as well as other things that didn't hurt him but didn't help him either, we were so very lucky to have had a fantastic Hospice service to help us in the last week of Dad's life.  Even though it didn't change the outcome of what happened, it did change the quality of how it happened for him and for us.  

Dad was an outstanding mentor and had a great way of leading and teaching others with positive perspective and humility, and he died exactly that same way only five days after he came home on Hospice, selfless and courageous as always.  I wish so much that we could have been among those whose loved one had to get an “extension” on Hospice services because they’ve outlived the six-month time allowance, but of course we didn’t want Dad to suffer any more than he already had, and, with the support of Hospice, we realized that it was his time to go on ahead.  We are forever changed by being with him when he was sick and when he left this world, but not nearly as much as we are by having him to shape our lives over the years.

One of Dad's all-time favorite songs, Judy Garland singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."  

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