On Friday afternoon, I rode a school bus to the Connecticut Hospice in Branford, battling a queasy stomach. I’m not one to get carsick (although it did happen to me once, about 10 years ago on a family vacation to the Grand Canyon). But this queasiness was not a matter of motion sickness; it was a psychological kind of unease. I knew I wanted to visit the hospice—but I couldn’t help picturing us (a group of about 70 bioethics students) tromping in like a group of grade-schoolers, peering into private rooms at what was obviously a private time in people’s lives. How could we take a “field trip” to a hospice without compromising the peace of its patients? The trip may have been bioethics-based, but I had my doubts about its morality.
After about a 20-minute drive, we arrived at a place that looked approachable, even inviting: a gathering of grass lawns, fountains, large-windowed buildings, and doors that slid open into something like a hotel lobby. I noticed as we filed in that there was an empty ambulance parked quietly but conspicuously at the front curb, where we exited the bus. We climbed carpeted stairs—the kind you only ever see in people’s homes—and passed through hallways of framed artwork that varied in size and spoke calm colors into the room. Then we all lined up for oatmeal raisin cookies before being led into a large, dark room. The sensation of a childhood field trip crept up into my consciousness again, and it felt wrong. I worried about where they were going to take us next and whether it would be intrusive.
Then the mood of the visit, or at least my skepticism toward it, changed. The staff began to introduce themselves, played an informative video about the purpose of hospice, and gave the impression in every way that visitors were quite welcome. Without setting foot in any private patient space, they led us out to a sprawling park with sloping grass hills and trees rooted right at the edge of the seaside. Waves stirred softly behind us as we all seated ourselves around a white balcony in the sunshine, and the hospice staff stood as a team at the opening of the balcony to explain their mission in more detail. Here are some of the key quotes from their opening descriptions that I think really embody the work they do:
“As hospice members, it is not our purpose to change the family. It is our purpose to meet the family where they are.”
“Right from the beginning we have an idea of the needs of our patients, from physical needs to psychological needs, and whenever there is a subtle change our team can step in.”
“In no setting that I’ve ever worked in the hospital do patients have as much access to everything they need.”
The staff members went on to describe the many and varied aspects of care offered to patients during and after their stay: medical support, social work, spiritual counseling, art therapy, and bereavement. Seamless complements to one another, each member of the team spoke their part, describing their particular facet of care with unmistakable sincerity and passion. The more I heard about their mission and the details of their services, the more I realized how many different aspects of a patient’s life hospice care seeks to address in what is often such a short (but significant) span of time. And as impressive as this approach was to me, it also, more simply, just seemed intuitively right. Patients’ needs at the end of life can vary enormously. Although the central component and founding principle of hospice is the medical care it offers, patients (no matter how near or far they are from their expected prognosis) are not reducible to the medical conditions they face—far more complex than that, they are human beings who have histories and families and multifaceted lives that call for multifaceted care.
Even in the way they treated us as visitors, welcoming us with warm
handshakes and cookies and an ocean view, it became clear to me during our visit that the staff of the Connecticut Hospice cares about all the small things that, together, truly make a person feel cared-for. I can only imagine how well that kind of thoughtfulness translates into end-of-life patient care.
For more information on the Connecticut Hospice, visit their website at http://www.hospice.com