BY JEFFRAY N. KESSLER
Listening to Jim and Gloria Meredith talk reveals their passionate belief that Hospice has a branding problem, and they are out to do what they can to change it.
Jim has bone cancer. He and his wife of 58 years are dealing with it. Where some might anticipate anguish and frustration, instead there is a pure kindness and comfort in their faces. While others might predict a panicked obsession on the inevitability of a ravaging disease, the Meredith’s are calmly focused on a message they want to share.
They have deciphered the sadness of their situation. It is not controlling them. Instead, they express a tight grip on its reigns. They have replaced confusion with confidence. They seem skilled and well coached in their plight, and there is no doubt in their minds how this came to be
“Early on, I happened to mention to a nurse that I thought Hospice was a death curse,” Jim remembered. “Well, she turned out to be a Hospice nurse, and it was just the wrong thing, but really the best thing, I could have said to her, because right then was when my eyes were opened.”
The Meredith’s both admitted to more than one of the common misconceptions that label Hospice organizations and services. Gloria said, “I knew they did home visits and fundraisers, but that’s about it. Thinking about Hospice reminded me of that old book, ‘The Scarlet Letter’ in a way.” Jim then recalled, “I remember when I was a kid, when someone died or was dying, there would be a black wreath on their door. That describes the image of Hospice I had.”
In the midst of living through their final days together, Jim and Gloria are doing what they can to get the real Hospice message out. “It’s just ignorance. That’s all I can think of to describe the typical reaction to Hospice now,” Jim proclaimed. “Hospice to me has really been an extension of my life and an improvement to the quality of our lives. Getting on Hospice is not the end. You’ve qualified for the best, not the worst that life has to offer.”
Gloria listened to her husband, and thoughtfully added, “I’d have to say that denial is the other thing that keeps people from getting involved with Hospice early on. It’s almost like a competition between denial and Hospice. If denial rules, it impacts the quality of life in bad ways. If Hospice rules, the quality of life is improved in so many ways.”
It is not as if the Meredith’s have had a great deal of time to learn about the advantages of becoming involved with Hospice services. Their situation has pretty much forced the issue, and they credit their children for what they now know and enjoy. Last September Jim was afforded all the joys and freedoms that go along with a 14th year of retirement. He has always been associated by those who know him as being involved in his community. That had not changed. He and Gloria were very active. “We were always early risers, and we usually started the day with a couple mile walk. We also traveled a lot, and enjoyed our family,” recalled Jim. Everything was just fine, when my left knee started acting up a bit.” Unbeknownst to the Meredith’s, that twinge in the knee was the gate that opened and invited them on to a roller coaster ride wrought with scarier dives and dips than any amusement park.
Knee replacement surgery went very well, “perfect” in Jim’s words. Early walking and therapy buoyed hopes for a return to full activity. “The only complaint I had to my doctor was that I thought I had pulled a muscle in my back from the walking or exercises,” said Jim. Although the knee came around, the soreness in his back persisted. That prompted a C.A.T. scan that revealed multiple tumors, not only on his back, but elsewhere in his body. Biopsies ensued, but revealed, thankfully, that they were all benign.
Weeks passed, but there was no decline in discomfort. This time a P.E.T. scan was ordered, and it revealed the culprit that had been hiding in the bushes. It was bone cancer, a type typically afflicting people much older than Jim, and one that attacks its host with overwhelming and irreversible momentum.
After a black out spell at home (six to eight weeks ago, according to Jim) prompted hospitalization, and after insurance coverage for the hospital stay ran out, a decision had to be made. Care facilities were discussed. Costs had to be considered. Quality of life was pondered. The family was involved. Hospice was an option, the one of which the least was known. “We had to do something,” said Gloria. “Time had run out on the insurance.” Jim added, “It was our kids who spearheaded the move to Hospice after a suggestion from one of the doctors. If not for the kids and the response they got from the local Hospice, I don’t know where we’d be today.”
Gloria remembered, “We had so little knowledge of Hospice. We didn’t even know that we would qualify, but there again is something that people should know. Once your doctor makes his diagnoses and approves the Hospice program, there is no qualifying. It’s not like food stamps.” Now Hospice care is in full swing for the Meredith’s. The fact that they became involved early, has allowed Hospice to employ its full armada of people and services. Hospice of Northwest Michigan Administrator, Margaret Lasater said, “This is when we can be our best. Too often, people wait until the very end, and there is very little we can do. It’s frustrating for us to know what all could have been done over a period of several months rather than several days.”
Gloria explains that a nurse visits them two to three days a week. They have enjoyed the efforts of the Hospice social worker who was described as “kind and thorough” by Jim. Another professional comes in to care for Jim’s bathing and hygiene, while there have been equipment deliveries and transportation assistance as well.
“It’s just love. The whole secret of the equipment and services is the love and all the hugs behind it,” exclaimed Jim. “I want to add too that just because a person gets on Hospice, it doesn’t mean they are a quitter or are giving up. That’s more misguided statements. I’ve always been a fighter. Hospice has helped me look forward, and has even offered us freedom. Some people think you are instantly homebound, but that’s just not the case.”
A discussion ensued between Jim and Gloria that revealed no lack of a sense of reality in their situation. They know what is at the end of this road, but they are convinced they are in the hands of professionals. Hospice literature often compares the utilization of professionals at the start of life with their employment at life’s end. “It only makes sense,” said Gloria. “We’ve never been through anything like this before. Hospice has just provided everything we have needed.” In the face of what life has dealt him, Jim expresses an easy, matter-of-fact philosophy. “This experience has been inspiring for us both. Of course there is sadness, but after having this opportunity to be on Hospice, it has given me an opportunity to think about my life and dig deeply into the questions I’ve always had. I’ve never been a religious man, but now I am feeling perfectly comfortable.”
With tear-pooled eyes, Jim looked across at Gloria, and she returned his glance with fondness rather than sadness. He said, “Any time He is ready for me, I’m ready. I’ve addressed my concerns, and (with mutual nods) those concerns have been answered. There is a load off our shoulders.”
There is a sense of victory in the comforting surroundings of the Meredith living room. They, along with their family and friends, and Hospice coaches seem to have gathered on a stage that denounces black wreaths of sorrow and the bleak ignorance that too often surrounds what is truly life’s last experience. They have made their message of involvement loud and clear with a bright and hopeful label for Hospice, its people and its services.
Please know that one or more Hospice organizations provide services in virtually every community.