(4/20/11) - One small - yet huge - step across the threshold of McLeod Hospice House seemed to lift a cloud that had hung over what should have been a joyous and exciting holiday season.
My widowed mother, Sybil Sellers of Bishopville, had courageously fought Alzheimer's for over five years. "Mama" to me (her only child) and "Toma" to my sons, she had continued to live independently until the spring of 2009, when her condition to a drastic downturn. Living 100 miles away, I relied on my aunt, her youngest sister, to be her daily caregiver. When it became obvious that she now needed around-the-clock care, Mama (begrudgingly) entered an assisted living facility.
The Sunday before Thanksgiving, she fell, fracturing her left hip. If there was a silver lining to the Alzheimer's, it was that she was basically unaware of her injury, outside of the pain and discomfort which medication kept to a minimum. On the flip side, rehabilitation following surgery was futile, as she wasn't able to comprehend what the physical therapists needed her to do. She remained in the hospital through the holidays, her mental and physical condition deteriorating daily.
On December 26, 2009, my wife and I took our two teenage boys to visit their Toma. When we entered her hospital room, her face beamed with delight, and it was as if the hands of time had been rolled back. She was the most alert and cognitive she had been in months, if not years. I guess that was our Christmas present. Yet, only a few days later, reality set in as she stopped eating and rarely opened her eyes. The doctors told us the best thing we could do for her was to place her in hospice care.
I confess, having never had a hands-on experience with hospice, I had only a vague idea as to what it encompasses. In my mind I pictured a bed-ridden patient in a dark, musty room surrounded by loved ones and attendants as the Angel of Death circled above. Well, as I soon discovered, I was right on one point: there are angels involved in hospice care.
When I took that first step into McLeod Hospice house, I knew immediately I was doing the most caring thing I could for Mama. Still decorated for the holidays, there was a homey, welcoming, almost cheery feeling. Everyone made certain we knew exactly what would be happening during our stay. Not only was Mama going to be well-cared for, so were all of us that would be sharing her journey.
Her final "home" was spacious, well-appointed, comfortable and comforting, and our family was welcome 24/7. The entire staff was a complement to the physical surroundings, and we were immediately aware that their priority was caring for all of us. No question we asked was insignificant or irrelevant, and we were assured that, at no time, would Mama be in pain. She would be made comfortable, and everyone would be on her timetable.
As hours stretched into days, I almost dared to wonder if, with the excellent care and attention she was receiving, maybe, just maybe, she could come back to us. But as Day 4 rolled into Day 5, I realized it was just a waiting game with the outcome pre-determined. But, more importantly, I realized that Mama really was OK. Peaceful, comfortable, almost serene... maybe more so than she had been in a long, long time.
By Day 6, we were in a routine, and everyone at McLeod Hospice House was family to us. Knowing that she was in capable, caring hands, I decided to try to catch up on some post-holiday backlog at my Myrtle Beach office. As I was eating lunch at my desk, I received "the call." The end was imminent.
Unfortunately, even pushing the legal speed limit, I didn't arrive in time - for which I will always feel guilty - but as I walked into her room, I was overwhelmed to find my cousin holding her hand and McLeod Hospice Chaplin Jesse watching over her as soft music played in the background. I was given as much time as I needed to say my good-byes, and then the staff did the most unexpected thing: they gave me a rose and thanked me for allowing them to care for Mama. I was speechless. They were thanking me when it should have been the other way around.
As I left McLeod Hospice House that afternoon, I felt I was leaving those who had quickly become family. In less than one week, they had made a lasting impression. While the outcome was inevitable, the humanity and compassion with which it played out were something I could not have fathomed.
In the months since Mama's passing, McLeod Hospice has not forgotten her or us. The staff has stayed in touch with cards, calls and letters, making certain my entire family is handling this life transition. Now, when I pass by McLeod Hospice House, I feel a deep connection and understanding, and I catch myself smiling, for I've stepped inside and seen angels at work.
To learn more about McLeod Hospice click here.