Hospice Girl Friday | ‘A Question of Faith’

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.

I was raised Jewish and attended synagogue growing up. I still go to services on the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah–the Jewish new year, and Yom Kippur–the Day of Atonement, even though I have never completely connected to the religion. One of the beliefs of Judaism is that our fate is sealed in the book of life during the time between the two holidays, and as Yom Kippur ends we begin the new year with a clean slate after praying for forgiveness of our sins.

This year, Yom Kippur began on a Friday evening. Earlier in the day I went into the hospice for my usual morning shift. There were five patients, but one caught my eye–a man in room four named Asher Zinn. Fifty years old. Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Jewish.

When I walked into Mr. Zinn’s room he was awake, shirtless, and lying in bed, covered from the waist down by a sheet. I noticed that one of his legs was twice the width of the other, a common side effect of his cancer. A woman in her mid-fifties was sitting in a chair next to his bed and saying goodbye into a cell phone. She was wearing blue plaid pajama bottoms and a college sweatshirt, and she looked like she hadn’t had time to comb her shoulder-length, straight blond hair.

I introduced myself to both of them. The woman said hello and told me her name was Sarah.

Her husband mumbled something.

“My husband’s in pain,” Mrs. Zinn said.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I replied, looking at the patient. “I’ll go tell your nurse.”

“Wait, I need help with something else,” she said. “Yom Kippur starts tonight and we want to have dinner and services here.”

“Okay,” I said, “I can help with that. First, let me get the nurse.”

While the nurse was in with the Zinns, I found the hospice chaplain and explained Mrs. Zinn’s request. She needed a room for dinner, two candlesticks, and a space with a table to hold the services that her husband so badly wanted to attend. The chaplain suggested they could set up the ceremonial meal in a conference room just off the lobby.

I reported back to Mrs. Zinn and offered to show her the room. To make conversation on the way there, I asked her if they belonged to a local synagogue.

“Several,” Mrs. Zinn said.

As we walked I wondered, but did not dare ask, how long ago her husband was diagnosed. How long did they have to enjoy being newlyweds before their new dream life together became a nightmare? I could not help but think about my own marriage. Like Mrs. Zinn and her husband, my husband and I also found each other late in life and always say we will never have enough time together. Suddenly I was even more grateful for the five healthy and happy years we’ve had so far.

Mrs. Zinn spoke, bringing me out of my thoughts. “On Monday the hospital doctor said my husband might live 24-48 hours, max. But he wants to observe Yom Kippur. This is very, very important to him.”

When we reached the conference room Mrs. Zinn took a quick look around and nodded. I showed her the communal kitchen in the hospice unit and we cleared out a shelf in the refrigerator for the kosher food being delivered that afternoon. When we got back to the room the chaplain was there holding an electric menorah (an eight-cupped candle holder used for Hanukkah).

“This is the closest thing we have to candle sticks,” he said to Mrs. Zinn. “I’m afraid there is a law against lighting candles in the building. You can remove the lights you don’t want to use,” he said, unscrewing a bulb to demonstrate. “Also, you can use the chapel in the main building, which seats about 50 people. There is a large, crystal cross in the corner that we can cover with a sheet. No other religious symbols. Will that do?”

“That’s fine,” Mrs. Zinn said. “How will we get my husband there?”

The nurse, who was still in the room said to Mr. Zinn, “We can’t move you to a chair because your leg is too swollen, so we will have to roll your bed to the chapel for the service.” He nodded slowly in acknowledgement. The nurse turned to Mrs. Zinn and said, “I will make arrangements with his evening nurse.”

“Thank you,” Mrs. Zinn said to her. “Thank you all,” she said, looking to each of us.

“It’s our pleasure,” the chaplain said for all of us. I said goodbye and wished them all an easy fast, a traditional Yom Kippur greeting. As I left I felt envious of the strength of Mr. Zinn’s faith–so adamant that he observe Yom Kippur, knowing his fate was already sealed. I am not sure I would bother.

Later that evening, at my Yom Kippur service, I wondered if whomever was deciding my fate for the year took note of my good deed for the day, or if it did not count because I am not deeply religious. Then it occurred to me that I seem to believe more than I thought. I decided to pay closer attention to the words and the prayers the rabbi and the other congregants were reading aloud, and before the service ended I made a promise to myself to learn more about my religion this year.

The following Friday I found out that Asher Zinn had passed away the day after attending Yom Kippur services in the hospice chapel, his fate eternally sealed in the book of life.

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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.