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End of life: Families tell their hospice stories

Hospice care is meant for the entire family. Families who have had loved ones in hospice care say they’ve experienced just that.

Jim and Gerry Hurley spent nearly four months at the Kate B. Reynolds Hospice House in Winston-Salem before Jim’s death on April 2, 2012. Jim’s level of treatment was such that he needed round-the-clock care that could not be handled anywhere else, Gerry explained.

Gerry spent the first couple weeks in Winston-Salem at a hotel, before going to a hospitality house nearby. But she only went there to shower and change clothes. The rest of the time, she slept on a cot in Jim’s room.

“Except for showers, I was there 24/7,” Gerry said. “I could not ask for any better experience.”

Both Jim and Gerry were surprised that doctors recommended hospice care after Jim’s last cancer surgery. But it proved to be a good move for the couple.

“He ruled the roost,” Gerry said. “He was a trooper. He functioned completely. He paid the bills, he did the check writing, he kept up with the stock market.”

He even asked the nurses to make copies for him, which they did, Gerry said.

“If hospice could be a good experience, we had it,” she said.

Steve and Nancy Shirley also had hospice care, but for a shorter time period. Steve had battled prostate cancer, which eventually went to his liver. His doctors at Duke University Hospital recommended hospice care after months of aggressive chemo treatment. The couple agreed. They came home from Duke on Tuesday, Oct. 15. Hospice had already come and set up a hospital bed, and a nurse was waiting.

“Everything happened so quickly,” Nancy said. “They were one step ahead of me. It was an excellent response time.”

Two days later, Steve took a turn for the worse, and was transferred to the Glenn A. Kiser Hospice House. Again, the response was nearly immediate, Nancy said. “They took care of it for me. I didn’t have to worry about a thing. It was the hardest decision I had to make, but I’m so glad I did. While we were there, there was somebody checking on me all the time to make sure I was OK.”

Friends gathered in a sunroom next to Steve’s room, and the family ate meals in the kitchen area.

“They took care of me and they took care of Steve,” Nancy said.

The couple had discussed Steve’s end-of-life care.

“He said, I would like to stay home as long as I can, but you have to do what you think is best,” Nancy said. It would have been hard to have memories of Steve dying at home, she added. “My memories of the hospice house are pleasant.”

Steve died the morning of Oct. 19, with Nancy by his side.

“I would recommend hospice to anybody,” Nancy said. “It’s as much for the family as it is for the patient.”

When Bill and Sharon Deal discussed their end-of-life plans with one another, they both knew they wanted to die at home. Bill was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in July, and was hospitalized in December. He came home under hospice care on Dec. 18. He died Dec. 23, at home, with his wife and their two daughters by his side.

“The last time he was in the hospital,” Sharon says, “we pretty much knew all the doors were closed. There was nothing else to do but keep Bill comfortable. That is the mission of hospice.”

Sharon met with Bill’s oncologist the morning of his release about hospice care, and the hospital notified hospice.

“They made things happen pretty quickly,” Sharon says. A hospital bed and other equipment were delivered before Bill and Sharon came home. A hospice staff member met with Sharon once they were home, and outlined all the services available.

“It was good information to have,” Sharon says. “If you’re bringing a terminally ill spouse home, it is good to have support from hospice.”

Once Bill was settled, the nurse took his vitals and gave Sharon a number to call if she needed any help over the weekend. Sharon did call that Saturday evening, when she was unable to rouse Bill to give him anti-seizure medication. He was less responsive the next morning.

“He was never in any pain and he was never on pain medication,” Sharon says. “He was just sleeping.”

Bill gave no indication of being in distress, and had no trouble breathing. During Sunday, his blood pressure dropped, and his breathing became labored that Monday morning. Sharon called the hospice nurse early in the morning, and she said she was on the way. She then called her girls, who also came right away.

Bill died at 8:55 a.m.

“I’m glad that we were all three there,” Sharon says. “There was no struggle. One second he breathed, and the next he didn’t. It was that easy. It was as good a death as anybody could have. He was at home. He wasn’t in pain. He didn’t struggle.”

Sharon was also glad hospice was there.

“The details are taken care of, and all your energies go toward caring for the patient,” she says. “That is just a great relief.”

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