November commemorates our country’s National Hospice and Palliative Care Month. During this month, we honor the work provided by all hospice associates and we remind the nation how important GOOD end of life care is! A good death begins with a clear vision of how we want to die. Most Americans, when asked how they want to die, prefer to remain at home surrounded by loved ones. They want to be free from pain and suffering, to remain independent and in control of their care, and to ensure that love and dignity will guide the way as they make their end of life journey. This describes the work of hospice.
So why then do 56% of all deaths still take place in medical institutions?
Far too many people wait until they are in the midst of a health care crisis before thinking about what options are available or what care they or their loved ones would have wanted. Hospice and Palliative Care professionals deal with these challenging situations every day – that’s what we are trained to do.
This past Friday morning, I was asked to call an out of state family member. Her husband was very ill and the family needed help with what to do next. I placed the call immediately and quickly learned what they were facing. There was a recent diagnosis of terminal lung cancer that had spread to the brain and bones. The physicians indicated that with the help of chemotherapy and radiation he would likely have eight months to live; without the treatment, he likely had two months to live. He agreed to begin treatment, but on day three of radiation, he grew so weak that getting out of bed required significant effort. His pain was increasing and he was receiving morphine. On day five of treatment, as we were still talking, my family member learned that her husband, who was at home with a friend, had decided he would decline further treatment. He did not have the strength to pursue treatment. He was now sleeping 20 hours a day, he was not eating or drinking, and his breathing was labored and erratic. Hospice was called and was in the house within an hour. They continued to care for him for the remaining 40 hours of his life.
The family was so grateful for the care and support offered to them through hospice. They also remain shocked and surprised that “it all happened so quickly.” My relative asked, “How could we have been told that with treatment his life expectancy could be eight months, when he couldn’t get out of bed just five days into treatment?” We will never know this answer, but I am so proud to part of a local and national group of providers who consistently give of themselves at a time when families face life’s most difficult time.
As we celebrate this year’s hospice month, we have much to be proud of. We have now served 40,000 patients and tens of thousands more bereaved family members. We remain Maryland’s largest hospice. We are part of a nationally recognized, award winning program in end of life care and our reputation as the “platinum standard” for hospice care is earned daily through the incredible work provided by each of our staff and volunteers. Our “Gilchrist Kids” and music therapy programs and our We Honor Veterans partnership are among our latest innovative programs.
In spite of these incredible accomplishments, we still have much to do. Until every American has a clear vision for their own death and has shared that vision with their loved ones and physicians, we must remain committed to educating our communities and enhancing the lives of those we serve one patient and family at a time.