When I was sixteen years old, a series of poor choices resulted in my arrest. The punishment designated by the court was 100 hours of community service, overseen by Reverend William T. Federici of First Congregational Church. Unphased and unrepentant, I showed up (late, of course) for my first day of service straight from the beach: barefoot, sand covered, and bathing suit clad. Rev. Federici said not a word about what brought me to his office. He insisted that I call him Bill or Billy, and set about drawing me a diagram detailing the direct connection between the mind and the heart. He explained something called “the heart of the perfection of wisdom,” and advised that I needed not just to open, but to empty my mind of the negative thoughts living rent-free in there. For a disaffected teenager, it was quite a concept.
That summer, Billy turned an angry teenager’s world upside down. To my adolescent surprise, I discovered I liked him not because he was Christian (something guaranteed to make my Jewish mother twitch), but because he was the first adult I’d ever connected with who made being good something cool. He somehow managed to be simultaneously irreverent and spiritually sound, his circle exclusive without being exclusionary. Those 100 hours provided inspiration, not punishment, and profoundly impacted both my attitude and the direction of my life.
From the seeds Billy planted grew my own belief system, rooted in the principle that all people and animals are deserving of kindness. As a parent, I teach my children to celebrate and embrace individuality and differences, to identify and include anyone being marginalized or ostracized. As a yoga teacher, I focus on bettering the self in order to better the world. As a nurse, I seek out patients and populations whose diverse and complex needs are not being met in mainstream medical channels.
There are teachers all along the path, and inspiration can be found in everything and everyone. Never have I been truly surrounded by bodhisattvas, however, until I began working in hospice. To be clear, the Bodhisattva to which I am referring is *not* the lousy Steely Dan song (with all due respect to lousy Steely Dan songs). In simple terms, the bodhisattva of Mahayana Buddhism is a person motivated by compassion to end suffering. Over the past several months, I have had the good fortune to work alongside many bodhisattvas disguised in civilian clothing, providing comfort and gentle care to patients and families during the last months to minutes of life.
Nearly all that I know about compassionate care of the terminally ill I learned from hospice aides. They have a sixth sense for where patients are in the disease process, and often juggle far more than a simple caseload. Dede good-naturedly cares for patients seven days a week, with a genuine smile that is absolutely infectious. Rather than groaning the time I called him at 7 pm about filling an emergency night shift, HE THANKED ME for the opportunity. Yesterday, Dede sensed that his patient’s passing was imminent. He immediately set about playing Mr. K his favorite songs, so the last hours of his life were filled with the sounds he loved the most.
Marilyn is a mom to small children as well as a full-time student, yet she still comes in – day or night – on short notice if a patient needs her. Last week I returned to a patient’s room after notifying her family that it was time to come say goodbye. Marilyn had bathed and dressed Miss P in a fresh outfit, tucked her comfortably into clean linens, and expertly braided her hair. The first thing our patient’s daughter noticed was how beautiful her mother’s hair looked. She told us it had been a year since her mom felt well enough to have her hair done. Miss P. was no longer able to speak, yet somehow Marilyn knew just what she would have wanted and needed.
A consummate professional, Saundra exudes competence and calm. We had a mutual patient I’ll call Michael, of whom we were both quite fond. One day, I bandaged his wounds as Saundra tended to him. “Mike,” she said, “you’ve got a bit of stubble growing on your face. I need to find a razor and clean you up, because a lot of people are going to want to kiss you tomorrow.” Without any input from me on the medical indicators of impending death, Saundra recognized that his passing was imminent. More impressive, still, was the tender way in which she’d thought to prepare him.
Last week, fellow nurse Corine and I found ourselves a solid hour past target departure time, neither of us willing to leave Mrs. A, who was still uncomfortable. Once breakthrough pain medication had been administered and the patient was resting peacefully, we made another attempted exit… at which point Corine noticed a loose bandage on the patient’s toe. Mrs. A was not conscious, likely several hours from death. Had she covered the patient’s feet with a warm blanket and gone about her business, no harm would arguably have been done. Corine, however, could not allow herself to leave any patient need un-met, regardless of how small. It was beyond touching.
One of the most heartwarming moments I’ve witnessed in hospice was during a recent admission. Community liaison Janelle walked a patient’s palpably anxious son through a series of difficult concepts. Her gentle demeanor took the fear out of the process, and he was able to fully evaluate all options and determine which approach he thought best fit his father’s needs. At some point during their conversation, Janelle had learned that Mr. L was a veteran. Just before leaving, she knelt down by the patient and thanked him for his service.
I’m pleased to report that I met my esteemed hospice colleagues under slightly more respectable circumstances than those which led me to my first teacher and bodhisattva. The lessons Reverend Federici taught juvenile delinquent Karen still hold true: being good *is* cool, and inspiring, and fulfilling. Compassion is an inherent part of goodness and hospice, as is the desire to end suffering. Regardless of personal faith tradition or professional title, we are united in compassionate desire to eradicate suffering – and I think we’re doing Billy proud.