Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The end of a life well lived.

I spent eleven years as a Helicopter Air-Crewman in the United States Coast Guard. I've personally saved no less than 27 lives. I've seen a far greater number of lives lost. Commercial fishermen, pleasure boaters, drug smugglers, airline crash victims, victims of natural disasters, human traffickers, victims of Asian slave trade, refugees from Cuba & Haiti and worst of all, fellow Coast Guardsmen lost in the line of duty who gave their lives "That Others Might Live".

I've seen some grisly stuff. But I was always able to process it somehow. Either via professional detachment in the case of the innocent, or contempt for members of society's dark underbelly I was able to work through what I saw, compartmentalize it and move on. Not that I wasn't deeply impacted, but I was able to deal with it.

This year I experienced something new. For the first time in my 41 years I lost a family member. I'd been blessed until now to have never lost a parent or grandparent. My folks are in good health and my maternal grandparents are as well. But over the last 7-10 years my paternal grandmother fell victim to Alzheimer's Disease.

Through the process as parts of her brain shut down, parts of her body would rebound and vice versa and with each cycle a little bit of my grandmother would be lost. By the last year she was simply gone and the life support system for Hellen Tourtillott, her body, was all that remained. Her character and the woman I knew as a child had died long ago. But there was this thing that still looked like her remaining. I loved her dearly, respected her like I've respected few others and deeply treasured her perspective gained from a life well lived. I don't know why and I may never figure it out but I never felt close to her. I never felt like I was free to be vulnerable in front of her. And now she's gone and I have no idea how to process it, no way to compartmentalize it. So I haven't and that sucks, but that's not the point of this......

My father and his brothers and sisters (6 in all) engaged the services Mission Hospice & Home Care to guide her and the family through the end-of-life. My grandmother was loved deeply by people who didn't have to do so. My family was aided and comforted by people who don't know us and who by now have moved on to doing the same for another family. The beautiful people of this Hospice organization were able to help my family, to guide them through the process, to help them deal with the slow, grinding loss of the matriarch of the family. Without them I have no idea how the family would have waded through the whole thing. The truly do God's work.

The following is an excerpt from Mission Hospice's newsletter:

Hellen Tourtillott, described by one son as “the only Amazon to measure 5-foot-2,” knew something about humor. After raising six kids, mostly as a single mother after her husband’s death, and working for years as a teacher and longtime chief dietitian for the San Mateo High School District, she became an actor and model, capitalizing on her little old lady looks.

Her family’s favorite picture is of her -- dressed in red coat and sensible shoes -- being dragged aloft by a bouquet of colorful balloons, which was used on a greeting card. Other shots are of her sticking out her tongue and mugging with a Valentine’s box. As another son related, “She made money making faces.”

She also loved to travel and visited Asia, the Near East, Europe and Central and South America. However, her chief concern was always her family, which grew to include 12 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. When she died last March at age 96, her last words to her children were, “Do you have everything you need?”

One of the ways she ensured that her family did, indeed, have everything they needed was by becoming a Mission Hospice & Home Care patient. In fact, she did it twice. She was initially referred several years ago, but her health improved to the point that she no longer needed hospice care.  After about a year, her condition returned and she was back on hospice care for about 18 months until her death March 15.

Daughter Terry Greene said social worker Karri Kaiser helped with the transition by counseling not only her mother and the rest of the family, but also for the caregivers who tended to day-to-day care. Hospice nurse Maria supervised medications, baths and care management.

“She didn’t want people making a fuss over her,” said Greene. “However, she was open to hospice care.  Many times she stated that she was grateful that her children (and all these people) were taking good care of her.”

And she kept her sense of humor until the end. Only 10 days before her death, a doctor asked her one of the standard questions used to gauge a patient’s mental status.

“When’s your birthday?” he asked.

“The same time every year,” she replied as if that was a silly question.

Hospice is quite a thing. Not something that can come from a Government entity. It comes from the hearts of people. If you have the means to do so I urge you to donate to your local Hospice Organizations. There are individuals and families who need this help, this love.

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