Mother Teresa seemed able to see and relate to the divine spirit of everyone she encountered and cared for throughout her life. My view is not so pure. However, occasionally I have an experience with someone where my ordinary, judging mind falls away and I get a glimpse into a greater truth. These are moments of grace. I met such a person during my last week working as a hospice nurse.
When the door opened an overpowering stench poured out like a toxic cloud. I felt my knees buckle slightly as I grabbed on to the door jam to steady myself. I paused and held my breath until the wave of sudden nausea had passed, and then stepped inside the dim apartment. A quiet, older man with a noticeable limp reached out his hand to greet me. I introduced myself. “Good morning. I’m the hospice nurse.” He replied, “Welcome, ma’am. Thank you for responding to my call. He’s just around the corner here. I’m his friend and I come in during the day to take care of him. He’s hurting mighty bad.”
I stepped gingerly on a narrow pathway that cut through the fetid clutter and peered into the bedroom on the right. The patient was lying on a rancid, soiled sheet atop a mattress on the floor. His eyes were closed; a slight moan escaped his lips. A threadbare blanket covered his emaciated frame. Plastic bottles of water were scattered on the bed next to him and an opened peanut butter jar with a spoon jammed into it was lying on its side by his pillow. I sat down on an overturned plastic crate at the entrance to the bedroom and waited quietly for him to speak.
After a minute he turned to look at me. His brow glistened with sweat and was deeply furrowed from pain, but his eyes were kind and gentle. He spoke slowly. “Thank you for taking the time to come into my home to see me. You know, I’m okay with dying; my last eight years have been pretty good all in all, but I’d be grateful if I didn’t have to suffer this much. It’s pretty intense. Can you help me?”
Even in pain his eyes were shining and his gaze was soft and direct. For a fleeting moment I had the oddest sensation that I was in a church. “I sure hope so,” I assured him. “We’re holding some good drugs and we’ll do our best.” I called the doctor and we revamped his medication regime on the spot, using our pain crisis protocol until his pain finally reached a tolerable level. “Oh my God, this is the first time I have experienced reasonable comfort in a long time,” he exclaimed, his face visibly relaxing.
I sat calmly with him for an hour, listening deeply as he told me his story. As he spoke, the squalor in his environment diminished in my mind – replaced by a light that seemed to surround and support him. I felt as if under a spell, drawn in by his grace and dignity and by his gratitude for the loving, loyal friends who would be there for him.
I realized how easy it is to think that you know what’s best for another, especially in such problematic circumstances – but hospice doesn’t do that. Our only agenda is to meet and respect people where they are at the end of their life. They lead the dance and we follow. Our care is based on their priorities and goals, and his agenda was clear and simple: No pain. Minimal fuss. That was it.
I stayed with him until his eyes closed and he fell into a peaceful slumber. I slipped out the door, a changed person. I had been deeply affected by him, and I was not alone. Everyone who visited him from hospice that week also came away profoundly moved. He made it easy, but I wished I had the capacity to see everyone as Jesus in disguise.