180 Days and Then Some

arspilka July 30th, 2011, 3:49 PM
Abby R. Spilka, Hospice Volunteer
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I have been a bit neglectful of my blogging responsibilities of late, something I don’t need to remind my VNSNY colleagues. July has been a month of transitions for me. I have a new role at work, which is both exciting and daunting. And while I am still learning to balance official responsibilities with unofficial responsibilities, and taking on new tasks while maintaining all of the old ones would seem to be what is proving to be most difficult, it is not. And this brings me to the other transition taking place.

My hospice patient, Hazel (not her real name).

In addition to my vigil work, I have a regular patient whom I have seen every Friday for the past three and a half years. Patients typically are enrolled in hospice for 180 days (incidentally that’s also the title of an excellent and powerful one-woman show by Taren Sterry, about her own hospice work), because that is the expectation of how long the patient has to live. Of course there are times when patients are recertified for another 180 days. Sometimes patients are discharged because they are stable, there is no decline, and their prognosis improves. Patients can go back on hospice if their situation changes. Hazel has experienced all of these scenarios and more, and I’ve been with her for all of it.

For most of our 3.5 years, I have been opening her mail, paying bills, filing, writing letters and thank you notes, and serving as her social secretary. One day two years ago, we were going through old papers and we ran across a letter from the Dean of the College of New Rochelle congratulating Hazel on making the Dean’s List. She got her bachelor’s degree at the same time I was getting mine, except that she was 77. She is a pretty stubborn dame with a lot of opinions, but if you get on her good side, she is sweet as can be. When my father-in-law died last summer, she wanted to know how my mother-in-law was doing, and asks after her often, and when I told her about my recent promotion, she wanted to hear all about the view of from my new office.

In February, Hazel fell, and she began to decline. When I was leaving to go on a vacation in April we had a difficult and heartfelt goodbye because I really didn’t think I would see her again. But, per Hazel’s modus operandi, she rallied, and seemed much better when I returned from France. She didn’t want to talk about herself; she just wanted to hear about my trip. Her advice to me was to take more trips.

A wonderful woman who is loving, generous, wise, and special cares for Hazel. I wish I could clone her. I want her to go to nursing school and then go on to teach nurses, although I am not sure her level of caring can be taught. It is really an art. She had a 101st birthday party for Hazel on Thursday. I attended as well as Hazel’s other volunteer, Ann. We sang to Hazel, had cake, and the three of us talked in the living room about what will happen when Hazel dies; Hazel slept the whole time.

Hazel is transitioning from living to dying, and my work with her is no longer administrative and jovial. I hold her hand to comfort her while she sleeps and give her sips of water and watch her breathe. I look at my work piling up on her desk knowing I can’t get to it because she does not want me to break the connection between my energy and hers. I cover her with blankets because she is cold, even though it is 100 degrees.

And I begin to understand that I have made my own transition. I am no longer a hospice volunteer sitting with her patient. I am a woman watching her friend die.


  • I just recently lost my dear husband to parkinson’s he passed away under hospice care, the care he received at the end was wonderful, I think the hospice caregiver’s are truly angels here on earth. Right now I am suffering every day with grief, I was his sole caregiver for over 5 yrs and for the last 2yrs he was unable to talk, but I could almost read his mind during this terrible time, At the end they inserted a feeding tube which he pulled out three times after the third time I said no more, I figured he didn’t want to live that way anymore. I hope I made the right choice.

  • In 1989, my Mom and her 3 sister’s, after a very long talk, chose to place thier mother, my grandmother, in a hospice. Each daughter, and at least one of 10 grandchilren were there, EVERY day. Nobody would, could, or can forget Mommo. I was/am Mommo’s 5th grandchild. I still remember the day Mommo was admitted to a hospice. She got right into the wheelchair, as per hospital policy, then after the elevator ride to the third floor, and somehow getting a rag, Mommo proceeded down the hall’s alaong every rail, and dusted them clean. Mommo alway’s was a very clean person. Alway’s vacuumed, dusted, and washed dishes. She did this until about 200. Then she became incapacitated. She could sit in a wheelchair and watch whatever, but the strength in her arm’s and wrist’s were gone. Mommo’s daughter’s, on a daily or even hourly basis, would have to feed Mommo. Then in April, 2001 the end was upon the entire family. Mommo was in her “death bed”. Each daughter, son-in-law, grandchild said something in her one good ear. I may have been the one that “ended” the ordeal. Mommo’s husband was also named Jim. So, when it was my turn at her bedside to say something, I said the following; “Catherine? It’s me James. I am here to take you to Heaven. Etc., etc.” (a few thing’s were also said, but I don’t remember). I also said that so quietly, nobody except Mommo and myself could hear it. Every cousoin, my sister, parent’s, aunt’s, uncle’s, etc. wanted to know. To date, nobody except Mommo, Pop-Pop, Mysef, and God, know’s. Mommo died on April 5, 2001. Exactly 1 week before her 95th Birthday.

  • [...] this year feels different. Maybe I have been so busy thinking about “Hazel’s” passing on August 20, the earthquake, and the hurricane which required the staff to evacuate the [...]

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