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OUR STORIES - Written by Bradley Everett

Nola's Story

Nola's story
When a friend asked Nola Schaffer if she’d like to be part of the Wheatland and Area Hospice Society’s volunteer program to assist palliative care patients and their families, she didn’t have to think twice.

“I feel it is a true blessing to be part of someone else’s book of life,” she said. “It’s a great honour and privilege to be allowed to be part of someone else’s life and if you can help make them or their family more comfortable, or ease their burden at the end of life then I’m grateful.”

When her own mom passed away 20 months ago, Schaffer recognized her family was in the fortunate situation of being large enough, willing and able to take turns sitting with their mom.

“Many palliative patients don’t have family or friends nearby to provide that kind of care. Or there are only a few and it can be really hard to be with your loved one in the hospital or home and still deal with the rest of life like job, family and the other demands,” said Schaffer.

The Wheatland and Area Hospice Society’s volunteers are available to sit with patients at home or hospital in order to give family members a break to take care of errands or just get some much-needed sleep.

“We’re not there to take the place of family, but to try and help out the patient and their family as we are able,” she said.

Volunteers let the Hospice Society know when they are available. When a family requests help from the Society they are given background information on those volunteers available so they can try to find a good fit for the patient and situation.

“It’s all about what the patient and family need,” said Schaffer.

To prepare for this volunteer position, Shaffer took the Bedside Respite and the No One Dies Alone programs offered by the Hospice Society. While she noted her background in medical care, serving as a First Responder in her community of Hussar, is a bonus that it isn’t necessary for this volunteer palliative care work.

“Providing this kind of care for palliative patients and helping their families comes more from a heart willing to help someone out than specific training” she said.

“I’m glad that word of this program is getting out,” Schaffer said, “and I hope that those who need it will take advantage of it.”

Judy’s Story

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“If there is anything you could do with the rest of your life, what would it be?” a friend asked Judy McLean over supper a while ago.

“I thought a bit and after a few minutes said, ‘I want to help people who are dying, and their families’,” said McLean.

Not a typical answer, but it is born out of McLean’s experience of caring for her cousin Erin and her two teenage kids over the last weeks of Erin’s life.

When McLean learned Erin’s brain tumour had returned in the spring of 2014, she had a few days free and offered to go help the single mom and her family in Coldstream, BC. The few days turned into a total of 10 weeks and put McLean on a path she hadn’t anticipated.

“We speak about ‘the privilege’ to walk with someone on the journey through their last days,” she said. “Having done this with Erin I now get it, and want to do what I can to help others in similar situations.”

McLean’s first two weeks consisted mostly of helping around the house with meals and other chores, as well as assisting Erin, whose mobility had become seriously affected by the cancer. She then came back to Strathmore, but roughly a week later, received a phone call asking if she could come back. So McLean returned.

As the disease progressed, Erin’s mobility problems worsened leading to more falls. At one point McLean and Erin shared a bed to be there in case Erin needed to get up in the night. Which proved a mixed blessing.

“We’d stay up to all hours giggling like little kids, just talking about everything,” said McLean.

However it wasn’t a great arrangement for rest, so evening respite care was brought in from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. so McLean could get the sleep she needed.

A big part of McLean’s care was simply being there for the daily household duties, helping to arrange care as needed and just to be a listening ear for Erin and her kids. Visits from the care workers, pastor and friends created a community of support for Erin and her family in those weeks.

“She was able to be at home surrounded by love and not suffering,” said McLean.

However after eight weeks it became clear that Erin needed more care than they were able to provide at home and so they decided on hospice.

“It wasn’t Erin’s first choice,” said McLean.

But with the encouragement of family and friends Erin decided to go to North Okanagan Hospice.

It wasn’t an easy move for her, but after a week or so the exceptional care of the staff and volunteers set her at ease.

“The room was beautiful and overlooked a garden. The staff knew Erin’s favourite colour was purple and her favourite flower was lavender; so homemade quilts and bouquets of lavender were brought into her room. There were comfy chairs and a murphy bed so her kids and friends could come and just spend time with her. The meals were wonderful and there was always fresh baking available,” said McLean.

“Perhaps most importantly, there was always someone to talk to—for Erin, the kids or myself. The staff, volunteers and even the hospice’s executive director, were readily available,” she said.

Shortly after Erin went into hospice, McLean returned home. But a couple of weeks later she was getting conflicting messages from family and friends as to how Erin was doing, so she flew out to see for herself.

When McLean first arrived Erin wasn’t very responsive so she just sat with her. But when she went back to the hospice the next day Erin was sitting up in bed and waving.

“The nurse recognized this as a last rally on Erin’s part and so had me call her kids, mom and brother to come visit while she still could,” said McLean.

Having said her good-byes, McLean flew home the next day, September 18, and the next morning Erin died, maybe not at home, but still surrounded by love.

It was this experience that prompted McLean to get involved with the Wheatland and Area Hospice Society and serve on the board of directors.

She wants to see that same kind of care available here in Strathmore and Wheatland County—not just the hospice but to assist individuals and families with the wide range of details be they legal, medical, or emotional, so they can make the most of the time they have left. McLean plans on taking the courses offered by the Wheatland and Area Hospice Society to become part of the bedside respite team, to do what she can to make sure others in our community can be surrounded by love and support in their last days.

Caitlyn's Story

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The death of Caitlyn Morenez’s father when she was 10 years old put her on the course for her life’s work as a hospice nurse and a volunteer with the Wheatland and Area Hospice Society.

Morenez’s first-hand experience of what her family and father went through when he died at the Foothills hospital, as well her time working the same palliative care unit there as a student, has given her an appreciation for the importance of that type of care.

But working at the Rosedale Hospice and Rotary Flames Home in Calgary as a health care aide and now as Registered Nurse following her graduation from Mount Royal University in December, has shown her the importance of hospice care for both patients and families.

“It’s not that hospice care is better than palliative care,” she said “it’s just different—and depending on the circumstances a hospice can provide greater benefits for the patients and families as they deal with the various physical, emotional and spiritual issues surrounding death.”

“My dad spent the last four months of his life in the Foothills, and it was hard on him, my family and me, as we tried to be with him as much as possible, even sleeping in a recliner in his room at night,” said Morenez.

“We were offered the option of hospice but decided to stay at the hospital because it was what we knew best. Looking back I wish we had taken the offer,” she said.

“The big difference between palliative and hospice care is how each answers questions of patients and family,” said Morenez.

“In palliative, the initial answer is ‘we’ll see’ because being in a hospital various logistics have to be figured out before answering. Whereas in hospice we just say ‘yes’, then try and figure out how we’re going to do it,” she said.

This is part of hospice care’s goal of making everyone, patient and family as comfortable as possible and doing all they can to accommodate whatever specific needs they may have (e.g. visitors, family sleeping over, pets, special food etc.)—including the need to move through this experience at their own pace.

Recalling her own experience, Morenez said there were instances where her family had to conform to the schedule of the hospital staff which at times meant having difficult conversations concerning her father’s care that they were not prepared for—which just made a tough situation even more difficult.

“Whereas in hospice, there aren’t the same sort of time constraints, families can have those hard conversations when they are ready as well as having more resources on hand to help them prepare,” she said.

This gift of time also extends to the staff. Since they aren’t subject to the same institutional demands as a hospital, doctors and nurses aren’t as rushed and can spend time talking with and listening to patients and their families.

Symptom management is also a big difference. So for example, in palliative care if a patient with cancer comes down with a urinary tract infection they will be given antibiotics to treat it, while a hospice patient in the same situation would receive antibiotics only if it helped make them more comfortable. In hospice the primary goal is the patient’s comfort.

Before she went to her initial interview at Rosedale, Morenez balked. She thought it would be dark, dreary and sad, and wasn’t sure she was up for that. But that’s not what she found, which is why she continues to work there and is helping the Wheatland and Area Hospice Society working to get hospice care in our rural area—because hospice care is about providing for the life of patients and their families.