My brush with death

How eight months with a hospice nurse and patient changed my perspective

Meredith J. Cooper’s look at Capt. Don and hospice care was published in two parts.
Part I
Part II

When I first started this story, I knew very little about hospice care. I’d never really been around death, so I couldn’t really identify with the idea of caring for dying people for a living.

That would soon change.

My first visit with Don Leslie and Shannon Fuller was Oct. 18, 2006. I had spoken with Shannon on the phone, and had done a little research, but I looked at this initial meeting as a jumping-off point, a get-to-know-you session. I had no idea what to expect, and that was OK—the story would tell itself.

Shannon turned out to be one of the sweetest, most positive people I’ve ever met. And Capt. Don … well, he was a character. His stories were off-the-wall, and his humor was second to none. Even on the bad days, when he could barely open his eyes, let alone speak, Shannon would say something to make him crack a smile. Such moments, I imagine, make working with people like him worthwhile.

The final personality in what would become an eight-month research project was Kristen Swain. As Capt. Don’s caregiver and downstairs neighbor, Kris was present during our visits more often than not. I could tell she was a bit nervous at first about having a journalist in the room, but it wasn’t long before the dynamic among the four of us turned from awkward to friendly and comfortable.

As much as I tried to keep myself distant, to remain an observer, I couldn’t help but become part of the story, even in ways I didn’t recognize at the time. I participated in conversations and even did tangible things such as bringing Little Dog outside so that Shannon could safely sit on Capt. Don’s bed (dogs can be very territorial). According to Kris, I also provided a level of support simply by being there.

I made weekly visits that coincided with Shannon’s; she started to refer to me as “part of the team.” Capt. Don asked for me when I couldn’t make it or was running late. And Kris hugged me when I came to his door the day he died. We were in this together.

During the time I spent shadowing Shannon on her visits with Capt. Don and Kris, I learned what it is to be a hospice nurse. Believe me, a doctor’s daughter, it’s much more than being a nurse.

A hospice nurse gives medical and practical advice. She compliments a patient on his silk pajamas. She shows the caregiver how to provide care, both physical and emotional. She helps the caregiver set boundaries and offers ideas on how to make his or her own life a little easier. It’s as much about the caregiver as it is about the patient.

For me, this experience was more rewarding than sad, and I’m probably a stronger person because of it. Who knows, maybe eight months from now I’ll be a hospice volunteer …