Hospice work is a calling

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BRATTLEBORO — Hospice nurses try to make the last days for people with terminal prognoses as comfortable and peaceful as possible.

Sara Sherritt, who has worked as a nurse for 10 years and started with Bayada Hospice in Brattleboro in March 2017, is one example. She visited Julia Winter, 93, at home in Brattleboro on April 26.

"Having a pretty good day, today?" Sherritt asked.

"Yup," Winter managed to whisper.

Winter is dying of cancer. The disease recently began progressing to the point where she is unable to get out of bed.

Sherritt checked her vital signs, measured her arms, looked for bed sores and made sure she could make slight movements. Then Sherritt chatted with Julia "Judy" Grover about her mother's pain and symptoms.

"You couldn't do it without hospice," said Grover, who also had hospice workers help her with her mother-in-law and acted as caregiver in both cases. "The program is wonderful."

Hospice workers are coming on a daily basis now to check in on her mom. It is not only nurses but a spiritual adviser, physician and social workers. And hospice volunteers allow Grover the chance to rest or go on errands.

Grover said her mother is not religious but Susie Webster-Toleno, the spiritual adviser, has been "great." Grover considers her relationship with hospice workers as a bond.

As a caretaker, Grover enjoys having some control over the situation.

"You get to make decisions," she said.

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Grover worries that nurses at facilities might not notice if something is wrong right away or they may not be as attentive about feeding and giving pills to the patients.

She believes more people should inquire about hospice. Some patients can still drive or travel when they begin getting services. Most health insurance plans include a benefit for hospice programs. Referrals can be made by caregivers, physicians or any health-care provider.

In recognition of National Nurses Week 2018, happening May 6 to 12, the Reformer interviewed several hospice nurses from Bayada.

Janet McClelland, director of Bayada Hospice in Brattleboro, said a plan of care can change weekly and nurses are making sure they are predicting symptoms. A staff member is always on call.

McClelland said her group has a census of 65 patients. In the past, it has been as high as 72.

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What inspires some of the nurses is the authenticity they find in patients and an appreciation for each day.

"Life isn't a given," McClelland said. "You die."

She said hospice nurses tend to find their work fulfilling and meaningful as they could just as easily go work at a hospital or nursing facility.

Sherritt had previously worked in an intensive care unit. There, too, she witnessed people dying.

"And it wasn't peaceful. It just was not," Sherritt said, recalling blood constantly being drawn from patients and "tubes coming out of every orifice.

"I found that really hard to deal with. So death really isn't that hard to deal with, when it's done right," she said.

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Jessie Weeks said she loves her job as a hospice nurse.

"And what I think makes it the best job I've ever had is to be able to do what I went into nursing for, which is to make people feel better and give people comfort," she said. "For us, this is our everyday situation, dealing with people who are dying. For them, this is a major life change. It's nice to be the person to normalize that for them, to make them feel the crazy things they're going through are manageable. We're like the hope bringers."

A lot of talk in the health care field is about "fighting the battle," said Christina Koes, another hospice nurse.

"People feel they're letting their loved ones down if they're not doing aggressive care," she said. "We change the language, really change the paradigm."

Patient-centered goals are the main focus. If they are healthy enough, patients can eat sweets, go on a vacation, visit family, gamble in a casino or do whatever brings quality and closure to their life. Hospices work together if a patient is in another state or region and needs services.

Koes believes in "The Bayada Way" or its values: "compassion, excellence and reliability."

"That's basically our mission statement but they actually do it," she said. "So that's been very nice."

McClelland added, "Our employees are our biggest assets."

Bayada is always looking for volunteers. Training is offered.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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