Walking hand in hand: Hospice workers accompany dying people

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Lisa Sartin

By Jerrilyn Zavada

As a nurse, Lisa Sartin has been interested in end-of-life care.

Sartin began her nursing career 25 years ago and has worked in oncology, critical care and as a nursing supervisor.

But in the last year, working as a hospice nurse for OSF Home Health in Ottawa, she found her niche.

“When I was working with oncology patients, I was just out of nursing school and loved it, but it was a little stressful,” Sartin said. “I was 22 years old and thought I could fix everything. Hospice was something I was just always interested in. This opportunity was available and I tried it and loved it.”

Sartin and the rest of the hospice care team, which includes skilled nursing, a social worker, certified nursing assistants and the chaplain/bereavement coordinator, work closely with one another to provide mental, physical and spiritual support for dying people and their families.

“From the minute they are admitted, each patient is always treated individually,” Sartin said. “Each patient has individual needs, each family has individual needs. We assess where they’re at in the grieving process, acceptance process and develop a plan of care from there.”

Sartin said the frequency with which the team visits the patient and family depends on the illness. A key responsibility of the nursing staff is education, especially on pain management and medicine administration.

“We see them a couple times a week,” she said. “If they are more critical, we see them more often. We go out and we’re there for the whole family. We’re caring not just for patients but for the whole family. You develop very close friendships and relationships with them.”

At a time when emotions can be all over the map for everyone involved, Sartin takes special care to be honest with the patient and their family about what they can expect.

“I tell them I will always be honest with them and that I can’t promise them any time, but what time there is I will make comfortable for them,” she said. “Everyone is different. Not everyone can handle the same conversations at the same time. By the time of the transition, families and patients are very educated and ready. Some patients want to be educated right up front and others want to be educated as they’re going through the process. All are educated the same, just at different rates.”

When death is imminent, Sartin says most people are prepared, but she’s not sure anyone is ever ready.

“Every family is different,” she said. “They’re prepared to see the family member not suffer anymore. I’ve been present for many passings. As a nurse our job is to be a support system. There are many times when we get in the car and we cry, but our priority is to be a support and be with them at the time of death.”

Although hospice care isn’t for everyone, those who do work with dying people and their families find a great personal reward from the task. Sartin says hospice workers have to be caring and compassionate, not only for people, but also for the line of work they are doing.

“Hospice is very rewarding. In nursing you want to fix everybody,” she said. “Sometimes helping means not fixing. It is rewarding knowing you have helped a patient and family through what is the most difficult time in their life. You’ve given comfort and know you’ve made the passing as peaceful as it can be. I’m rewarded every day by the friendships I make with the families and the patients.”

Each member of the hospice team brings a great deal of professional work ethic. Still, the nature of the job is they are losing someone with whom they have formed a relationship.

“You become very close to them,” Sartin said. “With each patient you lose, you are losing a friend. That part is difficult. But the benefits and rewards you get in the job very much outweigh that part of it.”

Throughout the process, Bill Clark, bereavement coordinator, is present for the dying patient and the family to help with the grieving process.

“I visit the patient or family as often as they request me,” Clark said. “Providing active listening is primary. By listening, I am able to discern their needs and concerns about dying. The bereavement coordinator’s presence, spiritual support and prayers are what they most request.”

After the patient’s death, the bereavement coordinator continues care for the family for 12 to 13 months in various ways. Once a year, a memorial event takes place for families who have lost a loved one in the previous year.

Clark, also an ordained minister, provides a calm, pastoral presence “by representing the love of God and the hope of heaven and eternal life He has promised through His Son Jesus.” He also offers prayers, which he says hardly anyone declines.

“One of my important assignments is to ascertain their religious background and even offer to contact their own pastor, priest, rabbi or any other religious clergy,” Clark said. “I never attempt to replace someone’s church or clergy, but simply come alongside for additional spiritual support.”

During his years as a hospice chaplain, Clark, says he is surprised at how most people are able to work through a lot of their own issues within themselves.

“Their own faith background helps them,” he said. “They often need a sounding board for their thoughts and feelings, which the chaplain can provide. I have discovered that people with faith have more peace in the midst of the dying process than those who do not … Many questions are resolved in a surrendered life and future to God through prayer.”

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