Participation in the 30th annual Thomas Nevola MD Symposium was a privilege. Organized by my friend Fred Craigie for MaineGeneral Medical Center, this year’s symposium at Colby College focused on the blessings of gratitude: promoting hope in a challenging world. Very pertinent subject, for sure.
Along with keynote presentations by Dr. Robert Emmons, described as the “world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude,” breakout sessions allowed the 400-plus participants to explore the ways that gratitude can be experienced, especially in clinical care.
Emmons’ talks were fascinating, including his description of eight things happy people do every morning. They express gratitude when they wake up, and read, write, and walk, among other things. At my book talks and other events, I encourage people to keep a journal, and Emmons cited that as something helpful. He also noted that “gratitude is a good medicine.” Three less-than-obvious benefits of gratitude included sleep, self-esteem, and self-control.
My brother Gordon, sister Edie, and I spoke at two breakout sessions, explaining our amazing experience with our dad, Ezra Smith, in the hospice unit at the Togus campus of the Veterans Administration. Yes, we experienced lots of gratitude during those six months, and continue to do so today.
Dr. Jim Schneid, Dad’s doctor at Togus, moderated our panel on “Lessons we learn from Loved Ones at the End of Life.” Anne Woodward, with her husband and son, also spoke about their experience when Anne’s dad, Charles Woodward, a Leeds farmer, died.
Gratitude begins with your relationship to the person who is dying. We were blessed with great parents. Mom focused on church, choir and school, Dad on hunting and fishing. Gratitude at the end of life also is dependent on the place. Mom died in the hospital, and while the staff was great, the hospice unit was a truly wonderful place, making our experience with Dad so much better. I still think, often, of the extraordinary staff and volunteers there.
As Gordon, Edie and I told stories about Dad, the session turned into something very special for us: a chance to look back on the life of an amazing man.
Every day in the hospice unit, Dad would exclaim, “This is a great day!” I was so touched in May when we arrived there to meet with Dr. Schneid to prepare our Nevola talk, and saw posters on the walls stating, “Today is a great day.” Jim and the staff all told us that Dad and our family had a great impact on them. And yes, we all teared up at that.
Dr. Schneid’s care was professional and personal, incorporating all of the Smith family into the decision-making process. And the attention the nursing staff gives to each and every patient is impressive. They administered his medicine, delivered his meals, visited with him and bathed him and comforted him and hugged him and loved him.
The hospice staff cleared out a corner of Dad’s room so he could continue painting and he created about two dozen new paintings there. One hangs permanently in the entrance to the unit. From our fishing adventures on the Togus campus, where brook trout are stocked just for the patients, to Dad’s festive 91st birthday party in the hospice unit’s gathering room, we are grateful, for sure, for all of it.
Good health care is also critical to experiencing gratitude at the end of life — both the professional caregivers and the medicine. Dr. Schneid made sure Dad was comfortable but never over-medicated. And the food at Togus is great too! Dad always insisted he wanted to die at home, and he almost did, but his first night at Togus, looking up from his dinner and glass of wine, Dad proclaimed, “I think I’ve died and gone to heaven!”
I loved it when Emmons noted that gratitude is missing in politics today. Boy, he got that right! And he confidently predicted, “We’re going to make America grateful again.” I sure hope he’s right about that.
I just finished reading Alison Wright’s astonishing book, “Learning to Breath.” She wrote, “The fear of death is nothing compared to the fear of having not lived a life to its greatest extent, with authenticity, awareness, and gratitude.” That is so true.
I’ve come to realize that gratitude is giving, not getting.
If you’d like to read more of our stories about Dad, I have published his eulogy in the outdoor news section of my website, www.georgesmithmaine.com. I’d be grateful if you read it.