In the driveway weeping, she threw her arms around Isabel, the hospice nurse.  An Angel from Heaven, I thought, as I silently watched my sister lose all control, cradled in the arms of this amazing nurse. Isabel had only been to see our mom twice, and yet it felt as though we’d known her our entire lives.

And how the heck did she get here so fast. She MUST have wings!  Although invisible to the naked eye...this turned out to be the case whenever we called her in a panic. In the blink of an eye, she would appear, even though she lived thirty-minutes away.  As Mom’s cancer progressed, Isabel’s presence became more and more frequent. She winged her way to our side, always knowing what to say. She handled our family of six sisters with such sensitivity and care, especially the witchy one we lovingly nicknamed “Broomey.” I began to believe that all nurses had a certain innate gene in them, an “angelic” gene, so to speak. My personal experience with Hospice during that devastatingly sorrowful time, turned out to be both inspirational and uplifting.

Although it’s been twelve and a half years since my mother’s passing, I often think about my experience with Angelic Isabel and the special group of nurses that I encountered from the VNA Health Group/Hospice Care in New Jersey where my mother lived. I still donate faithfully to their foundation. Residing in southern California, I decided to talk with a local Hospice nurse about her work and the emotional aspects of it from her perspective.

I met Rhonda Taylor, RN, BSN, CHPN, fromVitas Innovative Hospice Care, at a café in the harbor of Dana Point, California. We met early in the morning while it was still misty and overcast. I took a seat inside and sent her a text informing her of what I was wearing.  Ironically enough, not having a clue as to what she would look like, I immediately knew it was her when she walked in.

She was younger than I anticipated and looked very comfortable in her workout clothes. Her hair still wet, she mentioned she had just finished doing laps in the pool. Her warmth shined from the inside-out and a cheerful smile never left her face. We ordered coffee, scones and a fruit platter and sat comfortably in a corner. Our conversation was both open and candid.

At the young age of six or seven Rhonda knew she wanted to be a nurse.  She began her career at twenty-two and in spite of floundering a bit in the hospital scene, she’s been a nurse for nineteen years now, the last ten being with Hospice. “This profession helps me see more and more the person I want to be.  I love being in the home where the care is from the heart.”

That’s not to say that patient care is not from the heart in other settings, but Hospice care tends to afford a more intimate quality time with patients, “When I joined Hospice, I knew it was home for me.”

Hospice is a service provided for people who are in the final stages of life, when one’s health has taken a turn for the worse and treatment or a cure is no longer feasible. Hospice makes it possible for patients to live their final days in the comfort of their own home surrounded by their family, friends and personal belongings. The nurses assist with the many daily living activities and bring much needed peace of mind and respite to families. I can personally vouch for all of the above; however, I still wondered how the nurses dealt with the fact that all of their patients eventually die.

Rhonda told me that early on as a Hospice nurse she struggled with boundaries. “I used to come home often in tears, but over time I became more experienced and it did get better. I learned to allow myself to detach when I left the patient’s home and that I had to just check out. The company I work for, Vitas Innovative Hospice Care, is very respectful of their nurse’s time. They are all about boundary setting. When I go to a patient’s home it’s one hundred percent their time. I’m very conscious about being proactive in how to set expectations. I let them know my schedule ahead of time and that I may not always be the person who will come when they call.”

I asked how she dealt with the emotional aspect of the final stages of life for her patients and their families.

“There is a core team; a Chaplain, a social worker, a physician and a Hospice aide along with, me, the RN. It’s a combined effort.”

She said that her emotions vary, they become a combination of the patient’s and the survivor’s.

“Sometimes I feel I’m treating the family more than the patients. Initially, I attach to the patient and then when the patient makes the transition I attach more to the family.”

The transition?

“Yes, subconsciously when the patient makes the transition to acceptance of their fate, that’s when I connect more with the family.” 

Our conversation brought me back eight and half years. I remembered Isabel sitting at the kitchen table with my sisters and me at the final stages of my mother’s life. Mom’s vital organs had begun to shut down. One of my sisters thought a catheter was needed. Isabel delicately explained that wasn’t the case. She said it wouldn’t be long before our mother’s kidneys would stop producing urine. We were collectively silent.

I knew that what I had felt then, and still felt, was absolutely the case. Rhonda was the epitome of my description of a Hospice nurse, Angelic!

In the last hours of my mother’s life she had a conversation with her sister, who had already left the planet. I asked Rhonda if that was something she experienced with patients, and if she believed that people who are dying can see their predeceased loved ones.

“Yes. I have experienced it quite often. And for me, that’s where I started to become more spiritual. You see so many patients fidget and pick up things that aren’t there, which certainly can be due to electrolyte imbalances. There are a lot of toxins and the body has low oxygen levels. I think you see it more with those that are more intact emotionally, but you also see it with people who are demented or unconscious and suddenly become lucid. There is something else on the other side. I don’t think there is any other way to explain it.”

I asked Rhonda if she believed that people can receive signs from Heaven. She was quick to answer, “Yes, I do believe. I know it’s happened.”

After two hours of a therapeutic and refreshing conversation, I asked her if she had anything else she’d like to share with my readers. She pondered for a moment, as if she were sorting through an abundance of good advice, careful to choose the most valuable.

“Live like you’re dying,” she offered. “I try to make it a positive experience for my patients. It’s a gift I can give to people. I can’t fix them or change them, but I can guide them and provide relief as their life journey ends.” 

And I’ll bet she does guide them—in the same manner in which Isabel guided my family. I believe there’s a bright side to everything. During the last stages of my mom’s life, with the help of Hospice, I saw that bright side in her passing, and her brilliance shining down through the clouds.

I thank you Hospice for giving me that gift.

Blog Revised 3/15/17

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Rhonda Taylor, RN, BSN, CHPN Vitas Innovative Hospice Care
Rhonda Taylor, RN, BSN, CHPN Vitas Innovative Hospice Care