I Was a Reluctant Hospice Nurse

Cathy and her husband Larry Mayberry

By Cathy Mayberry

I have spent most of my nursing career in Home Health working as an RN. The agency where I work also has a hospice department so I was familiar with the services that they provided but had no desire to work in hospice full time. After having knee replacement surgery about a year ago when it was time to return back to work I was asked to fill in as the hospice coordinator. I reluctantly agreed knowing that I would only have to do it for a few weeks. 

A “Nagging Feeling” Leads to Full-Time Hospice Work

There are many things that happen in this world that we have no control of. Many times God is working in our lives but we don’t want to open the door to hear what He is saying and that is where I found myself after returning to work. After I had been back to work for about a month I started having a nagging feeling that I needed to stay and work full time in hospice. After much prayer and conversation with my husband we agreed that I should give it a try for six months, and my director agreed.

During this time my husband lost his job and complained frequently of feeling tired, having a sore back, and general malaise. For our 35th wedding anniversary we decided to take a long weekend away from home with our two grandchildren. While driving, about an hour from home, my husband's pain increased and was too much for him so we turned around and went to the emergency room.

Receiving the Terrible News

I have been on the other side of the bed when the doctor has to tell a family that their loved one is acutely, seriously ill. But that experience did not prepare me for the news we received that night - after all, my husband was only 52 years old. We were informed that he had advanced stage 4 carcinoma involving his spine, colon, pancreas, adrenal glands, gallbladder, and lymph system. He also had a perforation in his colon that required emergency surgery. At that moment, as I signed the consent form, I realized that the man I had loved most of my teenage and adult years was dying and I had no control over the situation.

He made it through surgery, and was able to come home about 10 days later. He recovered slowly from the surgery but was back on his feet and involved in family activities within a few weeks. Initially we were told his prognosis was a few weeks to a few months so we tried to pack as much living as we could into each day – treating each day as a blessing. After consultation we decided that he would only undergo palliative radiation therapy for an acute spinal tumor that if left untreated could have left him paralyzed.

Learning About Hospice as a Family Member

After the radiation therapy was completed he decided to sign up for hospice. I knew that was what he and I both needed to make this journey together but I still did not buy into the whole hospice philosophy - I still had not opened up my heart to listen to what God was trying to tell me.

We did a lot of traveling, sometimes near home and others far away but never was cancer - our new companion - far from our thoughts. This is when I really opened my heart to hospice to teach my children and grandchildren about the hospice philosophy and that it was OK to die at home and go on with life. Our adult children were not really ready to accept the fact that their dad was dying. Our daughter was not working and was able to spend a lot of time with her father which I felt was a blessing for both of them and  our son had recently moved back to the area from Wisconsin and was also able to spend more time with his dad. Isn’t it funny how God sets all the pieces up for us?   God is in control.

Caring for my husband opened my eyes to the benefits of dying at home with grace and dignity compared to the cold, sterile environment of most hospital settings. Our children and grandchildren were able to see how peaceful the end of life can be surrounded by your family.

Cancer is a terrible diagnosis and a difficult lesson to learn. We never want to think that we are going to die and yet we all know it is inevitable. Through the hospice program, my family learned that dying is actually living and that we need to be thankful for each day while we open our hearts to what we really don’t want to do and let God guide us in making our decisions.

I continued to work in hospice during my husband’s illness and now there is peace in my heart that I have accepted hospice as where I should be. I am thankful for the opportunity to grow and to teach my family through this process. Initially, yes I was a reluctant hospice nurse, but now I am learning to open my heart to new opportunities and help others through their unique journey of living and dying