Taking a Different Approach at the Bucket List…

Cherishing every moment not knowing when they may be gone. A photo with her late son, her gift of 23 years.
Cherishing every moment not knowing when they may be gone. A photo with her late son, her gift of 23 years.

What do you do for a living?
I’m a registered nurse for Tidewell Hospice House.

What do you do there?
“We take care of terminally ill patients or any patient who has been given the diagnosis of less than six months to live, if their disease takes a text-book course. People can come on and off hospice as much as they want. They get better and “graduate” from hospice or especially out of our hospice, our mini hospital. They’re called houses because they house anywhere from 6 to 14 people. There’s several different houses and they’re set up so the people feel like they’re at home. It’s all individual bedrooms, so there are anywhere between 6 and 14 bedrooms. People can come to us with uncontrollable symptoms; they can’t breathe or have horrible pain. We get them back after a regular medication routine or it might be aromatherapy, pet therapy, art therapy; we handle it holistically…everything. And then we can send them back home or wherever it is that they are. Sometimes they’re on hospice for years.”

Has working with people who are terminally ill affected your life at all?
“Everyday. I think the biggest way that it has is that you appreciate the little things in life. Just being able to get up in the morning and be able to go to the bathroom is remarkable when you deal with people who can’t do that. It’s all those little things. You don’t get as frustrated with “oh no, my car won’t start”. You just handle it like “ok, it’s a problem, let’s fix it”. All the little things, all the drama. For me, it’s easy to get rid of all the drama in my life and deal with the real problems and appreciate the little things. Grandchildren, friends, spending time with family…that’s what becomes really important. Not all the little nuances in life, like my hair dryer broke or I can’t get an appointment with my nail technician or that stuff…it’s just medial, it’s just not important anymore.”

Do you have a bucket list?
“Actually, my bucket list wouldn’t be to run away to certain places, which I would like to do, but it’s not my priority. My priority is more enjoying the time I have with the people who I’m closest with. Because, unless you’re gonna go on vacation with them, it doesn’t really matter. With the way tv and the computer is, we can go anywhere by sitting in front of the screen. No, it’s not the same, but I’d rather spend more time with the people who I really enjoy being with. The other thing is, you start to look inside for the answers and find peace within. For me, it’s being out in nature. I have refill myself to be able to work with terminal patients because it really is draining. It’s not so much the patients as much as it is the families because it’s so hard to deal with losing a loved one. So instead of having a bucket list, I go inside myself to find more peace and to really get rid of all the little things in my life that don’t matter and do things that bring me peace, joy and calmness, and just…bliss. We run around the world and try to obtain stuff and that’s a whole other subject. The whole “stuff” thing. I’ve been helping people clean out their houses for different reasons. One recently had a terminal illness. We work to obtain stuff and at the end we just get rid of it all or throw it away. So that changes your perspective. So, I don’t worry about getting the latest clothes or best car….(doesn’t matter).”

Have you ever had a patient that has shared regrets or wishes with you?
“There’s two things that people always say: one is if it’s a self-induced illness due to smoking, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, whatever kind of abuse. People abuse their bodies all the time because we think that we’re indestructible. A long time ago, a chiropractor said to me “We take really good care of our cars, get tune ups and oil changes. We know the car only runs for so many hundreds of thousands of miles. But we don’t take care of ourselves.” So the biggest regret people have, and the hardest death, are the ones where people know they could’ve done something different. “If only I hadn’t smoked myself to death. If only I hadn’t drank myself to death.” They are really difficult deaths because people have a lot of regrets.
The other thing people always regret is when people were removed from their families for whatever reasons (and I think a lot of that is selfishness and stubbornness on everybody’s part)…that is the biggest regret ever. Nobody wants to die alone. They want to be surrounded by love. And you wouldn’t believe how many people have no one. There’s lot of reasons people may have no one, and it’s really sad. They want to make amends and they’re really sorry for the lost time. We get in fights with family members and friends and we don’t resolve it. Let it go. I’m lucky that I have a strong Italian and Irish heritage. You fight and “kill” each other but you’re family, you let it go. Get past it. I can’t imagine not talking to my sister, my mother, my brother…and yet I see it all the time. Not that I don’t have it in my family as well, but you let it go. It doesn’t matter how much things hurt. You resolve it. We take [it] out on our families, they’re the closest people to us, but you have to work through it and let it go, because in the end, that’s really is who you want there. Your family and your friends (who are truly family) are the only people who stand by your side through all of it.
Luckily with hospice, and I think I speak for all hospice, and it’s only been around since around 1980, we have twice as many volunteers as we do employees. We try always, to never have anyone die alone, unless they want to. We have volunteers that sit “death vigil”. They’ll sit with patients and hold their hand. Especially patients that don’t have any families. That’s how important it is. I think to myself , “This is my job but would I want to volunteer to sit with someone that’s dying?!”

That must be so draining and emotional! Those volunteers just really have to refill their cup a lot to be able to handle that.
“We do it for our patients. My patients are amazing. It’s really sad when you have someone who is really fighting death, who is scared. That would be the other thing; everyone has different beliefs. Some people believe in God, some people don’t. Some people believe in after life, some people don’t. Some people name it God, some people name it Buddha. Whatever it is, but they make peace with that because at the end you’d be surprised how that carries you through or changes you or you start to believe or you have regrets about not believing. People are scared and I don’t think we should be scared to die. It’s the next step in our life. Helping these people transition over is a blessing. A girlfriend of mine, who lives in Philadelphia (where our interviewee is originally from), told me a long time ago, because I was very scared to work with dying patients, that they chose YOU to be there to help them at the end. So let it be an honor and don’t be afraid. I never thought I’d work hospice. So working with the patients, for me, is usually the easier part. Working with the families is the really difficult part. Tears are running down my face as I talk to you, and I sit there and talk to families and I cry with them because I can’t imagine losing my sister or my mother or my son or whatever. It’s very difficult.
They touch my life and I touch their lives and God brings people into our lives for all different reasons. If we can only recognize each and every day, the angels that are put in front of us, and some of them don’t show up as angels that’s for sure, but they’re all there to teach us a lesson. Appreciate everyone who is in our lives, every moment. The person standing in front of us in the grocery store. That’s the bucket list: living in the present moment. It really is. Recognizing everything that we have. We live in a country with so much welfare and we throw away good stuff everyday. We waste constantly. Don’t waste the relationships. When you’re getting mad at people, it’s usually some kind of reflection on something inside of you that you need to fix as well. All of us. So, being in the present moment and enjoying it and trying to figure out what it is, why am I in this circumstance, why is this happening right now… That’s right down to my patients and those families. Trying to figure out what that is. At the end of the day, when you walk away from it, fill yourself up with however you fill yourself up; your family, your friends…leave your work behind and enjoy the next moment. When you’re sitting there with your kids watching some silly show on tv, instead of thinking about what I need to do; forget it. Leave it behind. When you walk through the door, spend that precious time with them and pick it up later. It’ll always be there. Money, cars, houses, if your kid has an iPhone are not the important things in life. Walking them to school, those are the little moments, the moments that count. Sitting with them at dinner time, asking them what they’re thankful for, or what funny person did you meet today, or funny story did you hear?

I had a man in his sixties dying and his wife was at his bedside. She was a pediatric nurse but she couldn’t take her husband dying. So she was crying and she kept apologizing for crying. I said “Don’t apologize. Crying is a good thing.” She said “Yeah, my grandmother and my mother always told me the more you cry, the less you pee.”. It was me, the doctor, the social worker sitting there and we just started laughing. At the end of the day, she said something to me again about crying and apologized again. I looked at her and said “Why? The more you cry, the less you pee.” She started laughing. It’s those touching moments. I’m telling you, we’re here for relationships. It’s those little moments that count. To be able to sit here and talk to you. Don’t make life a chore. Gotta get this done, gotta get that done. Enjoy the present time and enjoy exactly what we’re doing. We miss life because we’re always rushing through and worrying about the next moment. They go by too fast.”

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