Lucy* and her twin sister were born much too soon. They received wonderful care in a local neonatal ICU, and though her sister slowly began to thrive, Lucy had complication after complication which left her with severe brain damage. She could suck and swallow, and thus receive nourishment, but she was unable to see or hear or even regulate her tiny body’s temperature. A special warming blanket, sensitive to the ebbs and flows of her temperature, kept Lucy comfortable and safe. It was not a long term solution. Lucy would not live for very long.
After three months, Lucy’s sister was ready to go home, and the family wanted to take Lucy home as well. There were four siblings to welcome her, and parents who loved all their children deeply and were committed to doing all they could to care for their tiny, fragile daughters. At the request of their pediatrician, Hospice of East Texas stepped in to provide care for Lucy and support for her family.
The highly complicated warming blanket Lucy needed was not normally sold to anyone but neonatal intensive care units, but Hospice staff talked the company into selling one to Hospice of East Texas so that Lucy could have it at home. While Lucy was being transported by ambulance the fifty miles to her home, Hospice staff arrived to help the family get ready. When the blanket was plugged in, it blew out all the fuses in the modest trailer home.
It was early evening and Lucy was on the way, so there was nothing to be done but improvise. Hospice staff bought a heating pad at Walmart, took it to the house and stayed with the mom, instructing her to take Lucy’s temperature every thirty minutes through that first night until another warming blanket, with fewer electrical demands, could be purchased and delivered. The new blanket arrived the next day, and over time, the family gradually settled into a complex and demanding routine, meeting the needs of two newborns and four other children.
Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.
At Hospice of East Texas, we have begun using this phrase in our fundraising and advertising. It’s a lovely idea, to be sure, but in this work, the truth of those words is often made very real by the startling, breathtaking moments that our staff and volunteers have the privilege to witness. A romantic dinner at HomePlace was one such moment that took our breath away.
Mr. Herbert Washington was a patient at HomePlace, and he had one request: he wanted to take his beloved wife out to dinner one more time.
Joe and Mary*, husband and wife, and both patients of Hospice of East Texas, had managed in their own home for a while. Their family, and the Hospice team, all wanted badly to respect their wishes to stay together in their last days, just as they had been together through their long lives. At last it became apparent that both needed more care, and they were admitted to HomePlace with a very special accommodation: the private room was converted to a double room so that they could be together. But that wasn’t quite close enough for Joe and Mary. When the nurse asked if they would like their beds pushed together, both responded “Yes!”. This beautiful photo captured the moment when this precious, fragile couple reached out to grasp one another’s hand. It wasn’t home, but it was HomePlace, and it was together.
At the end of life, patients with dementia face many challenges, both mentally and physically. Because many of them are almost nonverbal and severely limited physically, they are often isolated and dismissed as “unresponsive”. But not to Shannon Lutmer.
Shannon has a passion and a gift for reaching patients with dementia, and she is committed to sharing her passion and gift with others. In focused training sessions with volunteers and staff, Shannon enthusiastically teaches the use of “sensory kits” customized to the patient’s lifelong preferences. Soon, every dementia patient served by The Hospice of East Texas will be assigned a specially trained volunteer to communicate and connect with them and teach communication and calming techniques to their caregivers.
“Training and equipping our staff and volunteers in this highly specialized way is the first project funded by the Bobbie and Mel Lovelady Fund,” said Marjorie Ream, Hospice of East Texas President and CEO. “This program will add significant additional benefits to the care our dementia patients receive. We are deeply grateful to Pam and Thomas Smith for their inspirational gift and to all those whose contributions to the fund will enable us to grown our ability to provide the extraordinary care for which The Hospice of East Texas has always been known.”
Ron moved to Tyler from California in 2006. There was a story there, but no one knew any more than the little snippets Ron shared: As a truck driver, he had often passed through Tyler in his big rig. Tyler was pretty and looked to Ron like a good place to call home once he got off the road.
Ron bought a mobile home and settled in with his beloved dog who had been his only family for many years. He started attending the activities at the Tyler Senior Center, a program run by the City of Tyler, especially enjoying the camaraderie around the pool tables and the Friday night dances. As time went on, Ron began coming to the Center every day and then arriving earlier and earlier each day, taking on small helpful tasks, making the coffee, taking out the trash. “We just got used to having him here,” said Kay Odom, the Center’s Supervisor. “Ron was a big kidder and so much fun to be around. He became a part of our lives.”
The Center’s staff noticed that Ron always brought a bologna sandwich for his lunch, the same sandwich every single day, and he never joined in the hot noon meal provided at the Center by Meals on Wheels. By this time, the staff knew Ron to be a proud man. Maybe he thought it was a ‘free lunch’, something he would never ask for. Maybe he thought the lunch carried a price tag he couldn’t afford. No one knew how to broach the subject. “I finally just blurted it out,” said Kay. “Ron, if we could fix it so that you could get a hot meal at lunch, would you like that?” she asked, but she was unprepared for his response.
After a long pause, Ron replied humbly.
“Well, I guess I qualify.”
“I have a Purple Heart.”
“Do you need to see it?”
Ron was diagnosed with cancer at the Veterans Administration hospital in Dallas in 2011, and it was his friends from the Center who drove him back and forth for visits and then treatments. He had surgery in the fall of 2012 at the VA, but just never bounced back and most of the time he was alone.
When the physicians at the VA mentioned hospice care, Ron’s friends at the Tyler Senior Center had the same idea at about the same time: “We need to bring Ron home”. A phone call to Hospice of East Texas set the wheels in motion. “I’ll never forget the nurse saying to me, ‘we can do this!’” said Kay. It took a while for all the paperwork and forms and red tape to be cleared. There were many people in Tyler who loved Ron but no one was legally his family, and it was complicated. But on a Sunday afternoon in early December, an ambulance brought Ron “home”, to HomePlace, Hospice of East Texas’ inpatient facility.
“I never thought anyone could do this for me,” Ron said over and over. Dr. Tom Beets assured Ron and all his friends that HomePlace was their home now, and that they should treat it as such. For the next three weeks, Ron’s adopted family surrounded him with their caring presence. They were at his bedside literally around the clock, decorating his room with poinsettias and a little Christmas tree, joking with him, sitting quietly sometimes, just ‘being there’ the way a family should be.
“It was a gift”, said Kay Odom, “the gift of a wonderful ending. For Ron to end his journey this way, surrounded by his Tyler ‘family’, in a beautiful place with incredibly caring people was a priceless gift.” After his death, there was talk of a memorial service, but Ron’s friends knew what he would have wanted. “He had already had his send-off,” Kay said, “and Hospice of East Texas gave it to him. For the last few weeks of his life, Ron received hugs and cards and gifts and conversations from all the people who had grown to love him. He was so happy, and he said over and over “I’ll never be able to thank you enough’.”
No one knew much about the beginning of Ron’s life, or even the middle of it. But those who had come to know and love him knew about its ending. That wonderful ending was a gift, a gift to a proud man who had served his country valiantly. Hospice of East Texas brought Ron home to celebrate his life.
The look in her eyes said it all… This is serious. This is the beginning of a hard journey. I am so sorry that you are going to be introduced to the heartache and pain that is ahead. I need you so much. I love you so much. Her eyes said it all… the eyes of my wife. She had found a lump in her breast and years of experience and her God-given intuition said that this was no ordinary situation. She had been a registered nurse for over thirty years and a good one. She had taken care of countless numbers of people. She had given freely of her knowledge, skill, insight, and compassion to patients all over East Texas. She had travelled the world on mission trips just to nurse people to health and share her heart. She was a born caregiver who was about to discover the art of receiving care. As my wife had worked to minister to the physical needs of patients, I had spent my life ministering to their spiritual and emotional needs. I had spent those same thirty years as a pastor in and around the area. I knew what it was like to sit for hours with people in the hospital waiting room. I knew what it was like to be called out in the middle of the night to hold the hand of someone who was grieving. I knew what it was like to give care to folks with broken hearts. Now it was to be my turn to discover the art of receiving care as well.
For a year we walked together through the mine field of emotion that cancer laid before us. Surgeries, hospitalizations, infections, lab work, tubes and drains, chemo, radiation and so many days trying to make some solid sense of it all, that was life. The best way to describe that period was a constant and futile effort to nail "Jello" to the wall. Family and friends from all over converged on us to offer their love and support and come to our aid. It was an overwhelming and humbling experience. At first we tried to resist. We were "care givers" not receivers. However, gradually we began to realize that life had changed. The season to give had been embraced and enjoyed. Now it was the season to receive. It was time to allow others to be a blessing to us. It was time to let other people with hearts of love and compassion to reach out and minister to us just as we had done for so many years. It was a point in our lives when we would learn the value of opening our hearts to allow the love of others to flow in. As that love flowed we found healing and comfort and peace and strength.
The last few months the disease process began to speed up, and we made the transition to hospice care. We had both served for years as volunteers for the Hospice of East Texas. It was our turn once again to be on the receiving end of care that we were accustomed to giving.
Our nurses shared their love and compassion and skill and insight with my wife and family. The chaplains opened their hearts. The rest of the staff gave us smiles and hugs and encouragement at every turn. Early one Sunday morning my wife smiled her last smile here on this earth. She left behind two wonderful children, a loving mother and brothers and sisters who are very special. And she left a man who was blessed to call her sweetheart. We had learned many lessons in life and about life over the years. Of all the lessons we learned, one of the more poignant was the value and importance of accepting our Season to Receive.
When Keith was admitted to HomePlace in May of 2010, it seemed he would not be able to attend the annual family reunion at Lake of the Pines, a time when family gathered from near and far. Keith's cousin, Crystal Rossi, sent word to their family, friends and church family. They would gather at HomePlace on a Friday evening for the music and worship they always shared together so that Keith could join them.
Almost 100 people spread across the back lawn that warm spring day. A keyboard, drums, guitar and an ensemble of singers led the way. With the windows and patio door opened to his room, Keith could hear the music and the voices of those he loved rising in praise and thanksgiving, and he was able to join them for a while and to lift his hands in joy.
HomePlace was a gift to the Williams family, a soft place to land and to gather their strength for the rest of the journey. After a week or so, Keith was able to go home with his wife, Sheree, and their children, Penelope and Sawyer, and with the help of Hospice Home Care, he spent his last days in the home he had built with his own hands when he and Sheree were engaged. "When I think of Hospice, I think of angels," said Sheree. "If Hospice weren't there, people would have to do this all by themselves, and they wouldn't know what to do. They were with us every step of the way."
Keith never missed a church service. First on a walker, then in a wheelchair, he was always there, until the very last week, when he worshipped on the Sabbath, celebrated Father's Day, and died the next Thursday. "He was very strong," said Sheree, "and he lived until he died."
Though Keith was the musical one in the family, Sheree had been working on a song of her own for more than a year, before Keith was even ill. It was to have been a gift for the first Father's Day after Penelope was born, but it took another year, a year of struggle and sadness, for the words to come together. In celebration of the way Keith had taught their little children to pray, Sheree's own song of love and family and faith ends with these words she sang to Keith just four days before he died.
No matter what we face down life's road
Even though the trials may seem too strong
We just have to go back to those little moments
Where we showed them through our faith that
Prayer. . just. . . can't. . . go wrong
So Daddy will you pray. . . and we'll pray with you
Thank God for our every moment that he's brought us through
He'll hold us in His arms each and every day
He knows our every heartache 'cause he's not too far away
And every night we'll all gather just the same
And together we'll call upon His name
And ask Him to help us every day
Amen. 'Cause that's what Daddy prayed