Hospice Girl Friday | ‘Putting the Patient First’

Devra Lee Fishman’s dear friend and college roommate, Leslie, died from breast cancer one month shy of her 46th birthday after a four-year battle with the disease. Being with Leslie and her family at the end of her life inspired Devra to help care for others who are terminally ill. Each week, she documents her experiences volunteering at her local hospice in her blog, Hospice Girl Friday.

Throughout most of the autumn we had a patient in room seven who came to us from home care and who stayed for almost two months. Her name was Bernice Stevens. 73 years old. Kidney Disease.

I did not meet Mrs. Stevens for the first month she was in the hospice unit because she always had family and friends visiting during my Friday morning shifts. As I made my rounds I could hear several voices in her room talking and laughing, so I never went in. Unless someone in the room rings the call bell or comes out to make a request or ask a question, I do not like to disturb the time the patients share with loved ones.

Finally during one of my shifts Mrs. Stevens received a phone call. We always have to check with the patients before transferring calls so I went to her room, knocked as I walked in, and introduced myself first to Mrs. Stevens and then to her visitors.

Mrs. Stevens was sitting up in bed wearing her own pink quilted bathrobe, round wire-framed glasses and a gold chain with a small cross hanging just below her collar bone. A cell phone was on the table next to the bed.

I asked her if she wanted to speak to her niece.

“Would you mind asking her if I can call back, darling?” Her voice was strong with a slight southern drawl.

“Not at all. Do you have her number?”

“Yes.” She nodded toward the cell phone. “And, thank you.”

I didn’t see Mrs. Stevens again until three weeks later. As soon as I walked in to start my shift, a nurse asked if I would sit with Mrs. Stevens for a while. “She’s changed over the last couple of days and seems a little agitated. If you could just sit with her until I can get her pain medication I’d really appreciate it.”

I dropped my bag and hurried to room seven. Mrs. Stevens was wearing a hospital gown and was curled on her left side, facing the window and taking short, shallow breaths. Her right hand clutched the rail of the bed. I pulled the chair up close to her and sat down.

“Hello, Mrs. Stevens. I’m Devra, the Friday morning volunteer, and I’m going to sit with you for a little while.” She looked up at me and fluttered her lips like she was trying to say something. I put my hand on the one that she used to clutch the bedrail, hoping that the physical connection would comfort her, and she surprised me by taking hold of my hand and giving a tug. I asked her if she wanted something. Her lips fluttered for a few more seconds and I finally realized what she was saying: “Read to me…read to me…read to me…”

I glanced around the room for a book. “All I see is the newspaper on your dresser,” I said, standing up, but she tugged me back down and started to flutter her lips again. “The Bible…the Bible…the Bible…,’ she whispered with little puffs of air.

“The Bible,” I repeated, stalling for time as I thought about where I would find one. I gently placed her hand back down on the bed. “I am going to the chaplain’s office to look for a bible.” And look for the chaplain, I thought to myself. Shouldn’t he be reading the Bible to patients? I’m Jewish. That must disqualify me in some way.

The chaplain was not in his office, but I did find a stack of bibles on his bookshelf. All of them had ‘Holy Bible’ written in large gold letters on the front. I grabbed one and hurried back to Mrs. Stevens, mentally preparing myself to sight read the Christian Scriptures. I wondered: Is there a proper way to do this…could I get into religious trouble? Then I told myself all that mattered right now was Mrs. Stevens. I’m sure anybody’s god would understand.

“Found it,” I said as I sat back down. Mrs. Stevens was facing the ceiling with her eyes closed so I leafed through the book, trying to find the Corinthians verse that I’d often heard at weddings. At least that one was familiar to me. As I searched I asked Mrs. Stevens if she had a favorite passage. She opened her eyes for a moment so I put the book near her hands. She flipped a few pages and flattened her hand on the open Bible. I picked up the book, took hold of Mrs. Stevens’ hand, and started reading. For several paragraphs I stumbled over unfamiliar words and names in what seemed to be a random passage about the types and costs of materials used to build a temple. Eventually my apprehensive voice gave way to one of conviction. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Mrs. Stevens turn her head to face me.

After a few minutes the nurse tiptoed in. I paused only long enough for her to say hello and give Mrs. Stevens her pain medication. Soon after the nurse left, I felt Mrs. Stevens’ hand relax as she drifted off to sleep. Just in case she could still hear me, I kept reading until her daughter walked in forty minutes later and asked to take over.

I left the room and found the chaplain, who had just returned from a memorial service. I told him about my experience with Mrs. Stevens because religion was, after all, his department. We shared a laugh as I confessed that I was nervous reading the Bible at first because I am Jewish, but then I realized that my religion didn’t matter. The chaplain smiled and said, “Devra, it’s not that your religion did not matter. In this instance, what mattered most is that Mrs. Stevens wanted to hear you read the Bible to her, and you did that.”

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Bonus: For more on end of life care from a physician’s perspective, see How Doctors Die from our March/April 2013 issue.