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Family Memories from the Heart of a Home Health Nurse

Gina Flores
Caregiver Advocate | Shield HealthCare
05/03/16  3:40 PM PST
home health nurse

Special thanks to Cyndi I. for sharing these heartfelt memories as a home health nurse.

“There is much reward from working with families as they care for loved ones in their homes. As a registered nurse, I’ve worked in several areas of healthcare – in the hospital, in the clinic, in the community – but it is from my days as a home care nurse that I draw much of the inspiration that stays with me today. Sitting in their homes, surrounded by the essence of their lives, whether it was a comfortable clutter of coffee cups and cracker boxes on the kitchen table or a parade of various-sized photographs displayed atop a long low bookshelf, I glimpsed what they loved, who they loved, and who loved them. In each of those homes, I saw a family cope with their particular challenge in their own manner, as best they knew how.

I think often of one family in particular. Helen was a widow, in her seventies, a vibrant and independent lady who lived alone in a cozy farm house near the city in which I worked. She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer after finally seeing her doctor for a persistent cough. Her cancer was deemed untreatable; it was already advanced and had spread to other body organs, including her lungs. She was given only a few weeks to live. She wanted to live out her life in her own home and her children decided without hesitation to make that happen. She was referred to our home health agency and I was part of the team assigned to her care. By the time of my first visit with Helen, her oldest daughter had moved home and become her primary caregiver; beginning soon after, her son and younger daughter alternated in staying with and helping care for her.

Helen’s family rallied around her in remarkable fashion. They placed a comfortable armchair, and eventually her hospital bed, by a big bay window and placed a bird feeder busy with cardinals and chickadees just outside. They brought in flowers, they lit candles; they reminisced with her as they paged through family scrapbooks and photo albums and they read aloud to her from her favorite novels and poetry books. They played her favorite music – I once heard them singing along to a Traveling Wilburys album, loud and full of jest. They prepared her favorite foods, even when she wasn’t eating much – I once walked in to the spicy aroma of just-baked gingerbread. And as her death became imminent, more family members arrived from out of town, and with the comings and goings, the eating and talking, the warmth and love inside that house grew rich and palpable.

Caregiving can be a heavy burden and all is not easy when it is taken on.

Helen’s family suffered, as do most, from the strains of their undertaking. Her daughter took a leave of absence from her job; her son traveled back and forth from his home and family and place of work several hours away, as did her youngest daughter who balanced caring for two teenagers with her husband at home. Helen’s illness was not scheduled and the timing was not convenient. The march of family responsibilities and activities carried on in the lives of her children and their children, yet they recognized her final weeks and days as an important part of her life, and they recognized those days as an important part of their own lives. They accepted with eagerness and courage our team’s teachings and guidance. They infused a sense of joy in their rituals of care and remained determined to keep all gloominess at bay. I looked forward to my visits with them where I always found a cheery glow no matter how the day had unfolded, no matter what spills or mishaps may have taken place.

None of Helen’s family were healthcare professionals, they hadn’t been schooled in the techniques of transferring, positioning, and pain management; they hadn’t attended seminars or read nursing textbooks. Yet they exemplified an exceptional model of caregiving. They showed me that joy can be part of caring for a dying loved one: that it is okay to encourage brightly colored flowers and humor-filled conversation; that it’s not inappropriate to celebrate life instead of languishing in grief.

Helen’s family thanked me for working with them during an important part of their lives. But I’m grateful to them for letting me share their journey and for enriching my life more than they realize. I recall the last time I visited them, just a few days before Helen died, when I felt again that cheery glow and thought then that a bit of it might stay in my heart.”

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