Norris Burkes: Hospice chaplain a sad job? Not so much | On Spirituality

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As a hospice chaplain, I know that a sure-fire way to bring any conversation down a notch is to mention my profession.

“Oh that must be a really sad job,” is the reply of many.

“It can be sad,” I admit. “But most often it’s the opposite.”

Folks sometimes respond with a confused tilt of the head, perhaps much like you’re doing now.

So, to make my point, I offer these two contrasting stories.

The first case happened while I was working in a hospital. The patient was an 82-year-old farmer with a failing heart, someone nurses call a “frequent flyer.”

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His heart problems had given his family multiple scares, but somehow doctors managed to resolve his condition long enough to return home. Each time, doctors told him he was terminal and suggested he sign up for hospice.

Nothing doing. “Give him more meds and he’ll be OK” seemed to be the tack the family preferred.

But, on his final return, things drastically changed. Doctors twice restarted his heart and sent him to our ICU on a breathing machine.

After a few days, the family was asked if the farmer could be disconnected from life support and be placed on “comfort care.”

“No,” the family said. “You must do everything possible.”

In the next few moments, our staff made a concerted effort to define “everything.” We explained that if his heart stopped again, “everything” could involve nurses straddling his chest to do compressions, likely breaking ribs.

They didn’t seem to consider the indignity of it all when they said, “Just do it.”

The man lingered several more days, requiring multiple resuscitations before he died. The staff and I definitely had sad jobs that day.

But a year later I came to work for hospice and saw a much different approach to death.

One of the first patients I met was an octogenarian and member of the greatest generation. This Navy vet was lucid enough to see the battle that lay ahead, so he agreed to be placed on hospice.

The veteran’s family also asked the doctor to do “everything.” By that they meant, “Please do everything to make his passing comfortable and dignified.”

The family then invited me in to talk with him. Within moments of our meeting, he expressed his faith in God and spoke of the love that awaited him in an afterlife.

On my second visit, his heavenly expression of faith inspired me to start humming a hymn. My humming leaked out of his room and soon, one by one, his family added the lyrics that filled the sacred space.

Hospice nurse holds hands with patient on April 25, 2022
Hospice nurse holds hands with patient on April 25, 2022

“Some glad morning when this life is o’er,

I’ll fly away;

To a home on God’s celestial shore

I’ll fly away.”

A slanted smile broke through the man’s pained expressions as he joined the chorus.

"I’ll fly away, Oh Glory,

I’ll fly away;

When I die, Hallelujah, by and by,

I’ll fly away.”

More humming. More quiet and then a request.

“Will you say a prayer, chaplain?” asked his daughter.

My prayer, recalled the words of the psalmist, assuring this family that there was no place their dad could go without the comforting presence of God:

“Where can I go from your Spirit?

Where can I flee from your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, you are there.”

At the end of the day, the difference between these two families was how they expressed their view of the word “everything.”

The first family wanted doctors to do “everything” medically possible to stay alive. The second family wanted “everything” to include all things that comforted: medically, emotionally and spiritually.

The farmer died alone, perhaps painfully, and likely scared. The veteran died as he had lived — with friends, family and faith.

Yes, even as a hospice chaplain, I have sad days. But those days most often give way to fulfillment as I witness the dying courage shown in the faces of folks like this veteran.

If your loved ones are facing their final days. I encourage you to call your local hospice and inquire how they might help bring dignity, love, and courage to those dying moments.

Read more columns at www.thechaplain.net Send comments to comment@thechaplain.net or 10566 Combie Rd. Suite 6643 Auburn, CA 95602 or via voicemail (843) 608-9715.

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This article originally appeared on Florida Today: Norris Burkes: Hospice chaplain a sad job? Not so much