Hospice volunteer Janette Lemons sits with Ivan Pointer as he takes concentrated breaths. His mouthfuls of air are amplified by the oxygen machine next to his bed, and there are twinkling eyes above the tubes in Pointer’s nose.
Pointer, 77, was given two months to live by a doctor because his heart, lungs and kidney were in unstoppable decline. That was 18 months ago.
“I’ve never rolled over a patient and found an expiration date,” said son Richard Pointer, who used to work as a nurse.
Ivan’s lungs get tired quickly these days. He is getting multiple nebulizer treatments a day, usually administered by his wife Nora, 76. Richard takes the night shift.
Lemons manages to make it to Richard’s house — where Ivan now lives because he can’t walk up his old home’s steps — once or twice a week. She takes care of Ivan while Nora slips away to go workout or to do her own volunteering.
“It took me a long time to accept help,” Nora said. “I felt a lot of guilt over it, like I wasn’t doing my job.”
According to hospice social worker Candy Graves, guilt is a common emotion of families of the dying. She tries to convince them of the importance of taking care of the support system.
“It’s natural for the patient to get dependent on the loved one,” Graves said. “But I tell them, ‘You’re going to get worn out if that dependence develops. You need to take breaks all along. You need to take care of yourself.’ The best decisions made by families are ones that consider everyone’s needs.”
Sometimes, as Nora eventually did, the loved ones push past the guilt and accept the help.
That’s when hospice volunteers like Lemons step in.
Coming to terms with death
“(Volunteering for hospice) is not for everyone,” Lemons said. “Not everyone is comfortable with death. It’s always been easy for me to sit with people going through this and be supportive.”
Lemons had a few cases where patients died shortly after their relationship began. She said it’s not her place to be emotional.
“I am here to be their support, that’s all,” she said. Lemons said she dances between the professional and the personal, depending on what the patient needs. The first time she met Ivan, he jumped up and gave her a cross from a tattered plastic bag at his bedside. “I knew we’d get along pretty well after that.”
Hospice volunteers must hold together the pain and acceptance of death in one messy mix. Many families find acceptance is the most difficult. It goes against natural instinct.
“People want to go to their grave looking for a cure,” St. Anthony Hospital homecare and hospice director Brandi Bathrick said.
Yet, Bathrick would argue, this is futile. “We all have to come to terms with death. The philosophy of hospice is so different than any other medical field. We’re helping people die better.”
Patients are given the choice to receive hospice care when they are given six months or less to live. Bathrick said at that point it’s not about scrambling for a cure anymore, it’s about providing comfort.
According to Graves, volunteers need both personality and training to be supportive to the dying.
“You really have to want to do this,” she said.
There is also 24 hours of training over several weeks, taught by Graves. In addition to medical care, she addresses how to support the dying. “I talk about how to be with them at the end of life, to be calm and to realize it’s part of life.”
Nora said her faith has kept her at ease. Ivan also thinks he has a few guardian angels.
He describes a close call a few months ago, when he fell off the bed and got disconnected to his oxygen. Ivan said his friend’s seeing-eye dog, Brogan, who had died ten years before, appeared.
“He just sat right next to me and kept his eyes on me,” Ivan said. Nora came home to a blue-tinted Ivan and rushed him to the hospital.
“That dog kept me calm,” he said.
For more information about St. Anthony Hospital’s hospice volunteer program, contact 541-276-4100.
Natalie Wheeler can be reached at 541-966-0825 or firstname.lastname@example.org
This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.