When Christine Powers was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1995, she took it in stride.
No one would have blamed her if she had complained, but that wasn’t her way.
It was the same thing when Christine was diagnosed with malignant skin cancer in 2000.
Even when the cancer reappeared later, seven years after being cancer-free, she kept her composure. That time, the cancer had spread to her brain. After multiple operations and a multi-year battle, it was clear the cancer was terminal, so her family opted to get Christine hospice care.
For anyone not familiar with it, the term “hospice” can seem like it carries some mysterious and scary connotations, but it actually refers to a type of medical and emotional care for people in the last stages of a terminal illness. It helps them and their families manage the end of life with as much compassion as possible by focusing on the quality of life instead of continuing often painful treatments to prolong it.
Samantha Lee is one of the hospice aids who helped care for Christine in her last years.
“Christine was the youngest patient I ever had,” Samantha says. “I was in love with that family so much.”
Hospice nurses and aides try to ensure a patient isn’t in pain and help them — as much as possible — live their final days with dignity.
When Samantha helped take care of Christine, she came to the house five days a week, four hours at a time. She would cook, wash clothes, run errands, talk with Christine, and then work with her to try to keep her energy and mood up. She helped her do some exercises, and she encouraged her to do one major project a day to keep her spirits up.
“Our home aides knew Christine really, really well,” Gerry Powers, Christine’s husband, fondly recalls.
And they were with her until the end, making her as comfortable as possible and the family as cared for as possible.
“You can be intellectually prepared for a loss, if someone in your life is declining,” Gerry says. “But I don’t think you’re ever really emotionally prepared when it happens. That’s the thing.”
Samantha says people’s eyes get big when she tells them she’s a hospice worker, caring for patients at the end of their lives.
“They’ll say, ‘Oh, you’re a hospice aide? Wow, must be hard. Why do you like that?'” she mimics over the phone.
But you can tell by her voice just how much she loves her job. She says she’s grateful that she can be there to help the patients and their loved ones through this difficult time.
“[This job] changed me around,” she says. “It made me more soft on the inside, more compassionate and humbled.”
One thing Samantha has learned from her work is the importance of having conversations about death and dying early on.
It’s not an easy thing to do, but talking openly about death can bring some comfort to the end of life.
Especially in Western countries, talking about death is kind of taboo and invokes anxiety and fear in many of us. But if a loved one dies without ever having shared their end-of-life wishes, it can add extra stress and confusion during crisis mode.
“You have one family member that feels that this is not the way to live, that [the loved one] should go,” says Samantha. “Then you have the other family member that wants to hold on.”
She says that if people start conversations about what they want when they get to the end, then it shouldn’t be a problem when the time actually comes. Family members will know exactly what they need to do and be able to spend more time focusing on their loved one and taking care of themselves.
Samantha says that her work as a hospice worker has also given her a new perspective on life and death.
“I look at life much different,” she says.
“It really doesn’t make sense to be so angry and have a lot of hatred in your heart because nobody knows when their time is up.”