I was recently the face for an appeal for my local hospice. Following is a slightly edited version of the newsletter. I urge you to support your local hospice also!
I have supported Hospice North Shore for twelve years. Christmas is a time that I am most grateful for them as I have lost both my parents to cancer and Christmas is the time I miss them the most. My parent’s differing experiences when they were terminally ill demonstrate the important, life-affirming work the hospice does. There is an enduring myth that hospice is a place you go to die and that is all it has to offer. Nothing could be further from the truth.
When my father was terminally ill after an eight year battle with lymphatic cancer he refused to have anything to do with the hospice until the very end. Life the year before his death was a repetition of trips to the hospital – where they tried to control his symptoms with limited success – and days of lying in bed. After months of caring for Dad at this time, my mother finally broke down. An incredibly strong woman, nonetheless Mum could no longer cope. Finally Dad agreed to go into the hospice. The next day he died, aged 48.
Mum discovered she had breast cancer a couple of years later. She had a lumpectomy and radiation treatment and was fit and well for five years. Then she began complaining of severe back pain. Tests were done and we received the devastating news that the cancer was back. It had spread to her spine, liver, brain and lungs. There was no treatment that could save her.
Many tears were shed but after about three days Mum decided to get on with the process of living. Her doctor suggested she get in touch with hospice and she immediately embraced the idea and she checked herself in.
At this point we feared she would die sooner rather than later. She had now lost considerable weight and she was plagued by diarrhoea and vomiting as her body struggled to cope with the cocktail of drugs the hospital had prescribed for her. It seemed for each drug there was another three to combat the side-effects and we watched helplessly as she deteriorated before our eyes.
However, the hospice doctors quickly identified the causes of my mother’s problems. They set up a syringe-driver, changed some of the medication and carefully monitored her condition until the balance of drugs was right. Within a week Mum no longer looked like she was at death’s door, and she now managed small meals without distress.
After ten days she was ready to go home and I moved in to be her main caregiver. For the next two months the hospice organised a nurse to look after her for two days a week so I could have a break – something that was a life saver for my own well being. Hospice nurses popped in regularly to check on her on the other days. If she had wanted, she could have also had volunteers come in to do her housework, gardening, or just to keep her company.
Each day Mum was a little better and the hospice staff gradually weaned her off the medication until she was taking only one anti-cancer drug. She had many good months after this doing all the normal things that people do each day without thinking twice. It was hard sometimes to remember that she had a terminal illness.
Mum enjoyed life to the full during these final months. When the end came it was relatively fast. One day she was planning another outing and the next day she couldn’t walk, so we readmitted her to the hospice. Five days later she died. She was a woman with a strong faith in God and she told me she had accepted the reality of her death long ago. She was genuinely at peace at the end of her life, even though she was only in her 50s and by rights should have had many more years. The hospice staff worked night and day to alleviate any pain. Her family was there at her side and her death was one of quiet dignity and serenity.
Afterwards our family had access to grief counselling and my two young nieces attended a children’s workshop where they made collages about their Nana. They were able to talk about their feelings to a trained professional who helped guide them through the grieving process.
While the hospice could not stop the inevitability of my mum’s death, the contrast of her experience to my dad’s is startling. The hospice is not just a place to go to die. The hospice is an organisation that believes that death is a natural part of life and it is testament to the value and preciousness of life. They make a real and measurable difference to those who face living with a terminal illness. In my mother’s case, she had nine months of wellbeing at the end of her life – something you could never put a price on. It was certainly a special time for our family. Yes, it was bittersweet, but there was so much love and laughter, and honest and illuminating conversations, so all in all it was a time to treasure.
On behalf of my mother, I wish to thank the hospice for their help. I don’t know what we would have done without them – and I ask you to continue your support for your local hospice so they can continue to be there for families like mine.