Sharing a Laugh at Hospice

Death and dying is such a sad subject that many would be surprised to hear that sprinkled throughout the work week there were a few chuckles and laughable moments. Not just laughs between co workers sharing stories from their off duty hours, but sharing a laugh at hospice with dying patients as well as their families. I thought I would share a few examples that come to mind.

One gentleman patient of mine had, for various reasons, a longer stay at the hospice house than the usual one to two weeks. His stay at the hospice house ended up being well over a month. He was a very private, quiet man who did not like to engage in chit chat. He did not like to be drawn into conversation while remaining ever polite and respectful. A short ‘yes’ or ‘no’ was often the extent of many interactions. When you have the same patient for even a short period of time a rapport begins to develop, no mystery in their likes and dislikes. The patient knows what to expect from the medical routine and the staff comes to know the routine and preferences of the patient. And so it was with this particular patient. I hope that you can understand then, how out of the norm the following conversation between us was, how urgent the message must have been, nagging at his brain, for my patient to verbalize it, thus breaking his long standing minimalist interaction with me and all staff members. On this day I arrived at his room to deliver his 2pm medications. He was sitting, as was his routine, in his recliner chair after taking a short nap in bed after lunch. His water cup was filled and at the ready in anticipation of the medications he knew were coming. As I knocked and entered his room with my usual greeting, Mr X looked up at me from his recliner and slowly shook his head, then said in all earnestness, “You know, if you brushed your hair and put some product in it, maybe a little makeup, you wouldn’t look half bad.” I’ll admit that my facial expression probably gave away the surprised reaction of not only the unexpectedly long sentence (for Mr X), but it’s content as well. In fact I wasn’t immediately quite sure what exactly was said as I was taken aback more by his actually saying anything. Seeing my reaction he simply followed up with “You’ve got a lot of hair sticking out” pointing at my head “and there was just a commercial about controlling fly away hair.” I wish I could tell you that from that moment on Mr X and I shared more friendly conversations and laughs between us, but alas, that was our one and only conversation that went beyond the minimal ‘yes or no’ or under five word request. I must admit that immediately afterward I did slip into the next empty patient room to look at myself in the bathroom mirror and make the necessary adjustments…

Another patient of mine was a very sweet elderly man, very frail, bedbound, with a very nasty infected wound requiring daily wound care and dressing changes. During the course of changing the dressing one day, this sweet elderly man reached up and started fondling my elbow with a little twinkle in his eye even giving it a little tweak. As I was gloved up and engaged in some messy doings, I could only look over, and much to his apparent disappointment, let him know that ‘that’s my elbow, keep your hands to yourself, please’. To which he replied ‘Oh, damn.’

Remembering back on another day, a woman patient of mine seemed a bit down when I went to check in on her. She had just been visited by her three daughters and I could have sworn I had heard laughter and happy sounds coming from the room. The problem, my patient told me, was that her daughters had attempted to surprise her with the urn they had planned on using at the event of her death. “Everyone knows how much I like tea, I drink it all the time. Well, I guess they thought it would be cute to put my ashes in..that thing!” pointing to what I hadn’t seen when first entering the room…a teapot in the form of a toaster with toast popping out.  When I looked back over at my patient, she began laughing at my confused facial reaction. “Exactly!” she said, and then began laughing and laughing. “God forbid some visitor fill it up with hot water, and me in it!” At that, we both had a laugh. And needless to say mom got a different, more traditional urn when the day came that she needed it.

Lastly, for the purposes of this post anyway, comes the story of another elderly gentleman who came into the hospice house after suffering a fall at home. He had lived alone with no one to care for him, or for his just as elderly dog that came in with him. Between the aides and the nurses and the daily volunteers, we all took a turn taking Eddie out for his necessary times out on the lawn. Eddie, like his old master was half deaf, obese and missing quite a few teeth. The only leash he had come in with was a ratty rope the field nurse had found when she had arranged transport. Eddie was a cute little fellow that stayed curled up on his blanket in the corner, barely acknowledging if anyone entered the room.  Late one evening my elderly man had a bit more difficulty getting back from the bathroom even with the aide’s assistance. As my patient’s knees began to buckle the aide quickly pulled the call light for help while holding onto our little man. As I ran in to help, I called out to the other nurse nearby to quickly grab a wheelchair as it didn’t look like our man was able to make the short distance to the bed even with the two of us on either side. Poor Eddie, as if the commotion going on in the room wasn’t enough, the sight of the wheelchair must have sent him over the edge. With a howl I didn’t know he still had in him, he rolled up off his blanket and waddled towards the door. As we were all engaged in getting my man safely back into bed, we couldn’t immediately stop Eddie’s escape from the room. As I rushed out into the hall, there was Eddie nervously leaving a trail of urine as he confusedly tried to find his way to the exit door. When I caught up to him and opened the door to let him outside to fully relieve himself, poor Eddie lifted his leg and flopped over from the sheer exertion of his hurried flight. He was so worked up he didn’t have the strength to walk all the way back to the room so I ended up having to carry him the rest of the way. It made for quite a few laughs in the retelling to the morning shift…

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