By: Keith Morrison
Lawrence Dan Morrison, my Dad, died on 08/27/2017. It was a Sunday early morning when my phone rang and I missed the call. I listened to the message a few minutes later and it was Patty telling me that Dad was gone, that he’d passed peacefully with my mother as usual by his side. Patty probably made that call hundreds of times but this time it was my turn, and it was my first real experience with hospice, with the exception of my grandfather 20 years prior, which didn’t leave me with warm and fuzzys .
To understand Dad’s experience and consequently mine you need to know the back story, the story of his illness. Dad was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer in the summer of 2016 after months of pain, discomfort, and misdiagnosis and was schedule for Whipple surgery in September.
Up to this point Dad was a fairly healthy 73 years young and was ready to fight the beast with his usual singular willpower and beat it. Surgery went as planned and recovery was proceeding on schedule until he developed an infection from a leak in his pancreas. He had several more surgeries over the next few weeks to clean out the infection all while in a coma and on a vent. After the final surgery Dad was closed up and we waited. It was touch and go for weeks until the strongest man I’ve ever known woke up and began climbing back into the land of the living. He worked harder than he’d ever work and recovered enough to discharge to rehab, skilled nursing, and finally home after 5 months with home health. That was January. In March 2017 the cancer came back in his liver and after chemo, which I strongly suggested he do despite his depleted condition, he was readmitted to hospital. In retrospect I let my love for Dad and my unwillingness to possibly lose him outweigh his physical ability to fight the fight. Had I been educated about what hospice is and does I would’ve most certainly made it an option for Dad and the family to consider before seeking more aggressive treatment that almost certainly deprived us of precious time with him.
Our hospice journey started the next day when Dad called me to his room in the hospital. There with my Mom and sister both fighting back tears I was told to go to the Hospice of East Texas and find out what we needed to do about starting hospice care at home. I was not at all happy with this decision because I wasn’t ready to lose Dad, and all I knew was as soon as you sign up for hospice you’re dead. But I did as I was asked and I walked into Homeplace in a daze not knowing who to see or what to ask.
I was greeted at the front desk by a very sweet lady whom I later learned was one of our many volunteers. Another very pleasant lady sat me down and told me what we needed to do to start the process. As I drove back to the hospital I fought back fear, anxiety, anger, all the while trying to figure out what I could say to Dad to encourage him to fight. My Dad never did anything half way, all or nothing, and I couldn’t understand why he was throwing in the towel. I talked to Casemanagement and got the order to eval put in and waited. A very loving young lady, Lindsey came to do the evaluation and got Dad approved to go home on service and we began getting equipment set up. Transition home was smooth and we set about getting Dad and us adjusted to comfort care.
Something else you need to know about my Dad is that much like a lot of men in his generation he was tough. By that I mean he didn’t show affection a lot and especially towards me. When he got sick he I made a deal that every time I came to see him we would exchange I love you’s . I thought he’d object but I believe when faced with his mortality he opened up and softened a bit. So from that day forward whenever I came to see him which was pretty much every day, when I was leaving I’d say “love you Dad”, and he’d always say “love you Bubba”.
The first few weeks of home hospice soften me. As I stated earlier I believed hospice meant giving up and dying immediately but as I watched it became apparent that was not at all the case. The family rallied around Dad and we spent some really good quality time together and closed some holes in our relationships that we may not have had time for had we continued aggressively fighting the cancer that we had no hope of beating. Friends stopped by, grandbabies and great-grandbabies came in to see Dad and love on him. As I sat back and took it all in I realized that, had we chosen hospice care sooner we likely would’ve had much more time, and certainly more quality time at the end of Dad’s life. The level of care and compassion we received from our hospice team was beyond anything I expected. Our CNA and RN became part of our family and remain so to this day. I watched them go about their daily work with Dad and saw the level of skill, love, and compassion I’d never witnessed before. I learned how comfort care is so much different than aggressive treatment and just as important not only for the patient but also for the family. And each day as I left even as Dad declined I’d always say ’I love you Dad’, and he’d reply ’I love you Bubba’.
As his decline steepened the care team recommended we move Dad to Homeplace for inpatient care. Once again I had that twinge in my gut that we should fight or run away or something. That afternoon as I talked to Dad about moving he was at peace with whatever the team thought best. As I was preparing to leave he called to his bedside said he loved me. I returned the favor like we’d done for so many months. I touch his cheek with the palm and I whispered,’ I’m proud of you Dad’. Then he said something I couldn’t ever remember him saying to me although I know he was, he whispered ’I’m proud of you Bubba’, and he gentle reached up and touched my cheek. I left that day knowing it was time.
Once again our hospice care team performed their jobs with such grace, making it as comfortable and comforting as it possibly could be. I came over to see Dad and comfort Mom and let the care team do their work. As EMS was loading Dad up I asked him if he knew where he was going, and I will never forget his response. He said, “I’m going home”. I remember asking the nurse if he knew what he was saying and she said absolutely, he’s going to his final home and he’s good with it.
We settled into room 401 of Homeplace and I immediately felt at peace with the decision to move. I’d never seen or been treated in such a kind and gentle manor before. The staff told us it was our turn to be family and not caregivers. To enjoy these days or hours with Dad and offered to answer any questions we had, and we had plenty. They talked us through what this part of life looks like and how beautiful end of life is as a souls transitioning to heaven can be. They calmed us when we were upset, fed us when we were hungry, prayed with us and cried with us. There aren’t adequate words to express the level of expertise and professionalism with which they cared for us, all of us.
The days wore on and each day we’d ask how much longer, and each day we were told it’s between God and Dad. The doctors and nurses were always careful not to give false hope while reassuring us that all was going the way it should. Dad was kept comfortable and pain free. On the sixth day my sister and I finally talked Mom into going home for a bath and some down time. While she was gone Dad calmed down, his respiration slowed as did his heartrate. I thought maybe he was ready until Mom walked back in the room. The staff had related that some patients wait for something, or someone before they let go. Turns out in Dads case he was staying for Mom. Until the end of his life he looked after my mother like he’d done for 55 years.
The next evening, Saturday, our nurse asked Mom to leave Dad alone and limit his stimulation, just let him rest. She also encouraged Mom to take something to help her sleep. My sister and I left and Mom went to sleep. Early the next morning as was Dad’s custom, he rose early and went Home.
As I’d watched the staff take care of us and others it struck me that I’d like to help in some way. The Friday before Dad died I received a call from a friend who ran another hospice in town asking if I’d like to come aboard as a liason / marketer. I jumped at the chance.
What I learned is that all hospices are not create equal and I wasn’t as happy there as I’d hoped. I did however attract enough attention at the hospital to get a call from the only hospice I really wanted to work for and came onboard shortly there after.
Dad worked for a funeral home the last 15 years of his life, which by the way is how became a fan of the Hospice of East Texas. Shortly after he went to work I asked him how in the world he could work in such a place? Wasn’t it depressing to see so much suffering I asked? His answer is also my purpose for working here, he answer,” Son every single day that I go to work I get the privilege of helping someone when they’re at their absolute worst’.
It is a privilege to do what I do with the people I do it with. I help someone every day get through the most difficult time of their lives at that moment. It is a very satisfying feeling to know my team and I can make that happen. Funny thing is it only took me 55 years to figure out what I want to be when I grow up.
And just as my Dad had done from the time I was born until he took his last breathe, he showed me the path I should be on. So for that I say Thanks Dad.
After Dad died I had unanswered questions. How was he, was he proud of me, was I doing it right? I got my answer 2 weeks after the funeral.
I had a dream that Dad and I were deer hunting on our land we fondly call Deer Acres. Just like we’d done hundreds of times before we were on our stands when I heard him shoot. He texted me that he had one down so I climbed down got my gear and headed his way.
We met up and exchanged high fives and handshakes as usual and took pictures. As I pulled out my knife and rolled up my sleeves to field dress his deer he picked up his gear and began to walk down the trail. I called after him where are you going?
He turned around with a smile on his face and said “you got this Bubba!”, and walked away. I knew then he and I were gonna be ok.
If I’d have known then what I know now, I would have encouraged Dad to seek comfort care much earlier. Palliative and hospice care should be offered as an alternative treatment from the start. Education is the key to making that a reality and providing families with the resources to take care of their families.
I believe in what we do, I feel it’s my calling to help families get the help they need when they’re at their absolute worst. It is what Dad would’ve done and that’s good enough for me.
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.
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.