Patient “turnover” is pretty high in hospice work. It comes with the territory of serving a patient panel with a limited prognosis. When a patient quickly comes and goes off our service and I’m made aware of their death, my usual response is either irrationally impractical (“but I was going to see them tomorrow!,”) or slightly sentimental (“I wish I had more time to know them better.”)
It’s not the way with every patient and family I’ve met – I’ve had some rewarding longitudinal experiences which have felt “complete” for lack of a better word. I get the opportunity to help and see a person become more physically and emotionally comfortable before their final departure, and I get to meet with them more than once. However, even during these more whole patient experiences I’ve only had the chance to say “good-bye” once. A real good-bye.
I had heard rumors from my patient’s social worker and RN case manager that morning that he was planning to move back to Peru to live his final days. He and his family recognized he was approaching his final weeks of life. The disposition plan was to supply him with enough medications for last him through his last month of life.
As I wrote out my patient’s prescriptions I started reciting my standardized closing routine of the home visit out loud: “Please don’t hesitate your RN case manager if there’s any changes or questions, use our 24-hour triage line at any time of day -”
And then I stopped at the part where I schedule my next visit or throw in the well-intentioned but trite, “take care.” There would be no next visit. This was the closing send-off.
I hadn’t prepared any words – any closing statement that alluded to the future seemed awkward. I could see in his eyes that he knew what was coming next. I was suddenly overcome with emotion as I looked at my dying patient’s face and realized out loud, “this will be my last visit with you.” It was the last time I’d see him alive. “It was an honor to serve you.”
What came next was also unexpected – happy tears and hugs. But it made sense! Yes, mortality was just acknowledged out loud, but the next leg of the journey would be one of returning to a place this man knew as his home in this life.
The family asked me to join them for a group photo, and I did wind up telling them to “take care” of themselves and each other in the end.
I have the terrible habit of “chart stalking” patients in our EMR system long after my responsibilities to their care have ended. I discovered my patient died within two weeks of our final farewell.
I don’t know if I’ll ever again experience a parting as beautiful as that one – I’m happy that I get to remember my patient as an alert and talkative man with smiling eyes. But I do take pause with every patient good-bye now. It may not be the last, but I realize it still has the ability to be meaningful if I just recognize the potential.