When Harvey Van Pelt was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2012, his daughters knew he had a long and difficult fight ahead of him but the diagnosis was one that would likely kill him.
Patricia and her four siblings set out on a two-year journey with their then 84-year-old father to battle back the disease. He endured rounds of chemo and radiation, doctor visits and hospital stays that kept him from his Port Huron home and from the bedside of his wife of 60-plus years, Hazel, who was waging own struggle against the ravages of Alzheimer’s.
In fall 2014, Patricia, Nancy, Mary, Susan and John realized that the treatment for their father’s cancer had actually become worse than the disease itself. After talking with their father, they made the incredibly difficult decision to stop treatment but they still were not ready for hospice.
“We were still very reluctant to call hospice,” recalls Patricia, senior vice president and affiliate head of retail banking at Fifth Third Bank, who now lives in Grand Rapids. “You have to be ready to admit that you have reached the end. In the final few weeks, though, we could no longer keep my father comfortable. That tipping point finally pushed our decision. We wanted him to be comfortable. He did not want to die in a hospital with tubes everywhere. Our only option was to try hospice, so that is what we did.”
The family noticed an immediate difference in their father. Their Hospice of Michigan nurse brought in a different bed with a foam egg crate so Harvey would be more comfortable. The nurse started pain management, which provided the comfort that Patricia and her siblings could no longer give.
Their Hospice of Michigan nurse also answered their questions about what happens to the body at end of life, giving them signs to watch for in their father. Together, they made decisions about who to contact when he died, what funeral home to call and how the service would be handled.
“Having hospice really helped ease my father’s suffering toward the end,” Patricia recalled. “Just as important, though, it gave the family support and helped us understand what was going to happen when he passed. Those last few days were very difficult, but when it ended, we made one phone call and had someone step in to handle a lot of those details. The last thing you want to be worried about at that moment are the details. You want to be with your family.”
Less than 18 months later, Patricia and her siblings found themselves facing the end of their mother’s life, although they did not know it at the time. As is often the case with Alzheimer’s, Hazel’s decline was long and slow. Her health had peaks and valleys, including a last bout of pneumonia.
When they noticed their mother was developing a sore on her leg, they agreed they needed to get an egg crate for her, but when they started calling around, they realized the closest place was a 90-minute drive.
Hazel Van Pelt died the following day, too quickly for Patricia and her siblings to call hospice. The difference in the deaths of her parents was startling, Patricia recalled.
“My mother ended up passing much quicker than we imagined she would,” Patricia remembered. “We were faced with not knowing what to do next. We did not have hospice to call, so we had to call the sheriff or 911. The ambulance had to come out to check my mother’s vital signs and see if they could revive her before pronouncing her dead. It was hours before the funeral home could remove her body. There were things that had to happen that I did not even realize because HOM handled them with my dad. I did not realize the difference until I had these two experiences side by side.”
Hospice of Michigan nurse Melody Walker knows firsthand how tough it is to make that call. Her father died in hospice care a year after being diagnosed with esophageal cancer.
“One of our final conversations was when he asked me, ‘How do you know when it is time to stop all this nonsense?’” Melody recalled. “I told him, as I tell all my patients and families, ‘you will know in your heart.’ Everyone’s journey is their own. All the things you have been through will impact that final journey. As a hospice nurse, I cannot add more days to someone’s life but I can do my best to add more life to their days.”