What it is like to lose a loved one to cancer and how Hospice cares for them.
|I Got to Say Goodbye: Hospice Care
I sat next to my Grandpa Verne at Cousin Jennifer’s wedding the summer of 2011. He wasn’t going to go because he was on oxygen and the tank was too small for such a long outing, but he had received a call earlier in the week that nobody wants to hear; the cancer was back and it had spread to his brain. Grandpa made arrangements to rent a larger oxygen tank and he and his wife Rose decided to attend the wedding.
Grandpa was smiling and joking, wearing one of his usual striped button up shirt and slacks. His blue eyes twinkled when the hostess of our table at the Davenport hotel asked him if he wanted a refill of coffee. “There is a hole in the bottom of my cup.” He said. When she only filled his cup halfway, he said. “The bottom is full, now the top needs to be full too.” Then he would laugh and she would too. His coffee had creamer in it but Rose took hers black, so he commented to me. “It is funny how when she fills my cup it comes out white, but Roses cup comes out black. That is a pretty neat trick, huh?”
I had to admire my strong Grandpa, he was short of breath, even with the oxygen, but he was joking and being himself. Grandpa had been fighting lung cancer for about a year and had been going through chemo and radiation treatments until he developed radiation burns on his back and arms. The treatments had to stop until the burns healed. Then he developed radiation pneumonia around Christmas 2010. The treatments continued and he developed radiation burns again. They thought the cancer was gone, but then he started having headaches and was falling a lot and was having a hard time with his memory.
It was time for the bride’s and groom’s toast and they handed out the sparkling cider to everyone in long-stemmed glasses. I drank all of mine, but Grandpa didn’t touch his. I had turned my back on Grandpa to talk to my husband, Chris and when I turned around, Grandpa had switched our glasses. I looked at him and he said with a totally innocent look on his face “You better hurry up and drink your cider, Krista. Look I drank mine.” And we started laughing.
Doctors decided to treat the brain cancer with radiation and so Grandpa went to a couple of treatments. But after a few weeks Grandpa developed excruciating pain and had to go to the ER where he was admitted with the diagnoses of radiation pneumonia. His doctor said he was to stay a few days and be discharged to a care facility for physical therapy. I went to see him and he asked me about my husband, Chris. He had lost some weight, but I thought he looked pretty good. The hospital had him on medication for pain and for anxiety and were doing respiratory therapy for congestion.
But after a few days, he started going downhill. His oxygen level started dropping every time he moved and his pulse rate would sky rocket. He became very agitated because he couldn’t breathe, so they put him on strict bed rest, which would further agitate him because he was a man who seldom sat still and slept very little. His five kids, which included My Mom (Linda), Uncle Dick, Aunt Judy, Aunt Verna and Uncle Jim along with his wife Rose had to suddenly face the prospect of Hospice care in a few days: My Grandpa was dying.
I had a dream that night. I saw the angel of death. I smelled a slightly rotten odor and looked around and there was a man dressed all in black with dark hair. The place around me was all dark. I walked up to him and grabbed his arm and said “Don’t take my Grandpa. Take me instead.” He replied “You know it doesn’t work that way.” I said “He isn’t ready yet. He still has stuff he wants to do.” I was thinking of his 84th Birthday party he had planned that was coming up on 11/11/11. He was so excited about it. “It is his time.” The angel said gently and I woke up.
I went to the hospital and Grandpa was put on pureed foods because he had choked on solid food. He had lost some more weight. He was agitated and wanted to sit in a chair with his feet on the floor! He was very hard to understand, but I did hear him ask for Chris again. He was coughing so much due to the fluid buildup in his lungs and was too weak to bring up the fluid. He was basically starting to drown in his own fluid. In the family meeting we discussed how to handle his dying comfortably. The hospital doesn’t do that sort of thing, so he has to go to Hospice care. They have to honor the Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order, however, but cannot remove oxygen or fluids or any other measures.
I decided to pray with Grandpa and my Mom. I said “Dear Jesus, please comfort Grandpa as he approaches you.” Grandpa said “I can’t live like this!” And Rose said “You don’t have to. You can go home. We will be ok.” He said “Krista?” I said “I will be ok Grandpa. I will see you later in Heaven.” Rose said “You done good. We love you and we won’t forget you.” I said “Jesus be with Grandpa, let him know you are there so he won’t be afraid. Please touch him and lead him. Amen. Grandpa had a tight hold of my hand and would not let go. I was weeping and had my eyes closed, and I saw his spirit standing in front of me and he gave me a hug. I said in my heart “You go on now, I will be ok.” And he let go of my hand.
The next day I brought Chris with me to the hospital so Grandpa could say goodbye. He was sleeping, so we sat on either side of him and held his hands. I kissed him on the forehead and gently said hello. After a few minutes he opened his eyes and started talking to me. I said, “Grandpa, Chris is here.” He kept trying to pull his oxygen mask off and was picking at his bedclothes, and at his sheets. The little bit of movement brought his oxygen level down and his pulse up to 150.The nurse came in and turned off his monitors and gave Rose paperwork for her to sign. Grandpa was getting ready for his move to Hospice.
The Hospice place was quite homey compared to a hospital. It was very much like being in a large upscale house. The yard was like a park and Grandpa’s room was cheery and private. When I arrived the volunteer who met me gave me a hug when I started to cry. Grandpa was resting comfortably and he was not coughing. What Hospice does differently is they remove the IV and give medication so it dissolves in the mouth. They also withhold food and water. Rose put his hearing aids in and I started talking to Grandpa. I recited the 23rd Psalm, anointed his forehead with oil and sang to him. His blue eyes were half closed and they had lost their spark and his mouth was half open. I asked Rose “Do you think he is still there?” “I think so.” She said. “I think so too.” I said. I put my hand on his chest and said “Grandpa tell Jesus “Into thy hands I commit my spirit.” I told him I loved him and left the room.
I asked why Hospice does things this way. Apparently they withhold food and water and put them into a deep, coma-like sleep so the body does not feel pain, but they can still hear you when you come and visit them. The body gradually dies without suffering. Well, in a way I could understand that because at the hospital Grandpa was suffering. He could not move without suffocating. He could not eat without choking. He was coughing without rest. He was so anxious because he was barely able to breathe and he was exhausted, but he was holding on because he was always so strong and always energetic. It was hard for him to just lay there and be helpless and there was nothing anybody could do short of a double lung transplant and the cancer had spread to his brain and probably to other parts of his body.
I had asked God that night to show me what Grandpa is experiencing and I had a vision that night: My heart rate slowed down and my breathing too. My chest got heavy. My thoughts slowed down. I started floating and I was not afraid. My thoughts were “I am dying and I am going to heaven. I am ready, but not quite.” Then I was pulled out of the vision.
The next night my Mom called me and said that Hospice had called and said he was nearing his time so all of the siblings were going there to be with him. Right before bed I prayed “God please have Mercy and bring my Grandpa home.” The next morning when I woke up the Lord said “It is done, your Grandpa is in Heaven with Me.” When I checked my messages I saw my Mom had left me a message saying that he had passed away at on 8/26/11 1:14am and that he had waited until all his kids and his wife were there with him.
At the graveside service, there was a huge thunderclap and I saw angels all around us as we talked about Grandpa and how much we loved him and how feisty he was! We still plan on celebrating his birthday party on 11/11/11. I look forward to seeing him in Heaven someday and having a really big party with Jesus and all of my family and friends! I hope he switches wine glasses with me at the dinner table again.