A feature story, “Hospice project gives students rare insight into the end of life,” printed in this newspaper on March 1, brought back a lot of wonderful memories of my father’s stay at the Hospice Unit at the Togus Veterans hospital. That may sound odd, but the Smith family’s hospice experience delivered high quality care, and yes, a wonderful experience for all of us. I can’t imagine dying in a more caring environment.
Ezra Smith had made it clear that he was not going to any kind of senior facility, but a week after he arrived at Togus, he proclaimed, “I think I’ve died and gone to heaven.”
In fact, every day for the six months he was in the 14-bed unit, Dad exclaimed, “This is a great day.”
I choose not to name the nurses and volunteers who made Dad’s final months so wonderful, because they are a team and would, I think, want to be recognized that way. Well, I got this far in the column and had to pause to shed a few tears. Just thinking about those amazing people does that to me.
Dad was in a private room with plenty of space for all his many visitors. The staff carved out a corner space so he could continue painting, and he created about two dozen new paintings while he was there. One hangs permanently in the entrance to the unit.
Dad was blessed with two amazing doctors. His primary care physician in Winthrop, Dr. Peter deWolfe, called on Dad at his home, sometimes bringing sweet treats made by his wife. Do any other doctors do that these days? And Peter visited Dad several times at Togus.
And how about this? Hearing Dad express disappointment that he couldn’t have bacon with his breakfast (it’s unhealthy so is not served to any patients at Togus), his doctor there, Jim Schneid, arrived early one morning with bacon, which the doctor cooked and delivered with Dad’s breakfast.
Jim’s care was professional, but even more important, it was personal, incorporating all of the Smith family into the decision-making process. Brother Gordon, sister Edie and I met regularly with the doctor, usually with Dad and his lady-friend Irma, to discuss his status and options for care.
Dad thrived there to the point that, after a few months, they did some additional tests to see how sick he really was. Dad got a laugh out of us when he said, “Good news, I’m in the right place.” Yes, he was really dying. But he hung on for another few months.
In early May, the entire extended family turned out for Dad’s 91st birthday party in the gathering room in the hospice unit. It was truly festive.
The attention of the nursing staff to each and every patient is impressive. If Dad made even a slight noise, a nurse rushed to the room to make sure he was OK. They administered his medicine, delivered his meals, visited with him and bathed him and comforted him and hugged him and loved him. Oh, oh, here come the tears again.
Volunteers play an important role at the Hospice Unit. Some visited with Dad several times a week, as did his many friends. Two wonderful singers were there every Saturday afternoon, and Dad asked them to sing at his memorial service, which they did. People traveled from all over the state to see Dad, but the best of times was when he had his great-grandchildren in his grip. The light in his eyes told you all you needed to know.
I shall never forget our fishing adventures on the Togus campus, where a dammed-up stream was filled with trout stocked by the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. I wheeled Dad to the side of the pond, where he cast for fish. The first afternoon it was 85 degrees, and I told Dad we’d have some fun, but I didn’t think we had a chance of catching anything. On his first cast, he caught a beautiful brookie. That photo is right here on my desk.
Because of the extraordinary care Dad received, we had six months to share stories and memories with him. I wrote a lot of them down. The last week, he slept most of the time, needing more medicine to limit his pain, but he came alive when I helped him with his absentee ballot. He knew he was going to die soon, and he really wanted to vote. Gordon told him that if we delivered his ballot before he died, it would be counted. Dad was very pleased to hear that.
Toward the end, Dad started to talk about his “expiration date.” Edie was appalled, but the rest of us laughed. She was with Dad in the early morning hours when he died in his sleep, and Gordon and I arrived soon after she alerted us. The entire staff was crying when we arrived. I can’t imagine working in a place where you care for and come to love your patients, and they all die. These are extraordinary people.