“Physical pain is easy to treat. Emotional is connected to the heart. And you have to connect with the spirit.” Before Hospice nurse Miriette Dorval had completed her sentence, I knew it captured my family’s experience with end-of-life care…
I was sitting with Miriette at a picnic table on the campus of Big Bend Hospice. In this visit, I hoped to somehow better understand what it’s like to help someone in the last weeks, days, and moments of that person’s life.
But my mind kept drifting back to a decade earlier, when that person was my mother.
The idea of the energy within June Strauss ever fading from this earth seemed impossible to imagine at the time. In addition to raising us six kids, June raised millions of dollars on behalf of charitable causes in Tallahassee. She was a co-founder of many nonprofits but was best known for helping abused and neglected children.
We affectionally referred to her as “Mama June,” as she was a mother to so many. She was a great problem solver: helping to supplement a child’s education, winning over Florida lawmakers, and caring for the indigent. No job was too big or too small.
In the spring of 2010, Mom celebrated her 80th birthday and seemed to be enjoying her usual perfect health. But in late summer, she was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, which had metastasized to her stomach. Treatment might have given her a little more time, but she chose quality of life instead.
Our father Buddy Strauss had died the previous year and Mom was living alone in their home. She made the initial call to Big Bend Hospice. The intake meeting was with Gini West, a family friend. On the outside, Mom did not look sick, which was part of the problem. But Gini immediately set our minds at ease explaining that it’s never too early to call. Besides helping Mom with expectations, she helped my sister Leslie and me as caregivers. For example, eating was painful, so Gini told us about a powerful kitchen blender that could help Mom get nutrition.
In mid-November, Mom was experiencing stomach discomfort, and Hospice recommended having her in residence at the Margaret Z. Dozier House. Three of us accompanied her, and a volunteer was helping us sign the guestbook. My Mom said, “I’m a patient, where do I check-in?” The woman looked at her quizzically. “Well, that’s a first. The patients usually come in on a stretcher.” It was so like our Mama June to defy the odds!
Hospice took care of a colon blockage and Mom was released. We moved her into my sister Leslie’s house. When it became too painful to continue nutrition, Hospice loaned Mom a video of a man who had stopped eating, which followed him until the end. It took away the fear of the unknown. The nurse also taught my sister clever tips, like cutting a night gown up the back to make it easier to get on and off for bathing, while Mom slept.
On December 6, 2010, all six of us kids, plus two of Mom’s sons-in-law and two grandchildren, formed a cocoon around her bedside. Our Hospice nurse was in that intimate moment as well, assuring Mom’s needs were taken care of: physical, emotional and spiritual.
We all took turns saying whatever was in our hearts as she transitioned. Having our Hospice nurse there in those final hours to interpret the last stages was a godsend, right up until the moment that Mom breathed her last.
On that steamy summer afternoon, as I listened to Miriette’s stories from 34 years of entering into the sacred space of people’s lives, and helping them through that final door, my admiration grew. She helped me understand that because Big Bend Hospice is a private, nonprofit organization, she and her fellow nurses are free to assess ALL of a patient’s needs – even those that go beyond the medical.
“Every case is different,” she told me. There’s no predictability with death and end-of-life services are tailored to fit the patient’s desires and needs. Miriette also revealed a secret that makes it all work: “Nursing is a job you do with your heart.”
After witnessing firsthand what that meant in our mother’s final weeks and moments, I believe that Big Bend Hospice is a nonprofit worth supporting. And not just during our time of need, but so it’s preserved in this community for everyone’s needs.
Somehow, I think Mama June—champion of charities—would agree.
– Julie Strauss Bettinger