They waited in an alcove along the hospital’s hallway, a handful of steps from where the woman lay in a bed. They’d claimed the two chairs and one sofa in the cramped space. A few leaned against the wall. Several of the youngest adults sat cross-legged on the hospital’s polished floor.
I probably would’ve hurried by the cluster of people in the alcove if they hadn’t flagged me down. I might’ve smiled and nodded at them, but my focus was on a particular room on this particular floor where a potential hospice patient anticipated my arrival.
One of the people on the sofa—let’s say a fifty-something woman wearing dangling earrings and a jogging suit—stood and blocked my path.
“Are you the guy from hospice?”
There was no denying the nametag on my shirt or the packet of information in my hand with “Hospice” in a font large enough to read across the street.
In urgent, hushed sentences, she explained I was about to visit her mother. While one of her sisters was in the hospital room, the other family members had camped out here for me. Based on the mix of ages in the jam-packed alcove, it was obvious the dying woman a few steps away not only had daughters present, but in-laws and grandchildren and perhaps several friends.
This took place years ago, when I worked as a hospice chaplain. One of my responsibilities evolved into becoming “the guy from hospice.” It didn’t say that on the job description, but I was frequently sent to possible patients to share a quick overview of hospice benefits and answer questions. I’m not a medical person and wasn’t there to evaluate the patient’s status. My goal was to make sure the individuals and families understood the key basics about hospice. I spent time in living rooms and, yes, an occasional hospital corridor, hoping to assist a family’s impossibly hard decisions for a loved one. A nurse would soon follow my visit to review the patient’s charts, answer medical questions, and prepare the family for the next official steps.
No one is required to have hospice care. But I knew, before entering any room, that at least two doctors—the patient’s doctor and the hospice’s doctor—had agreed the patient was “hospice appropriate.” Because of their illness, they likely had six months or less to live.
The woman with the dangling earrings said, “Could you take your nametag off.”
It wasn’t a question.
All eyes were on me. From the sofa, the chairs, the walls, the floor.
She stepped closer and continued, “We don’t want Mom to know you’re from hospice.” Like a gunslinger in the old west, she aimed an index finger with red polish at my nametag. “She doesn’t need to know she’s dying, so please remove the nametag . . .”
The sentence faded. At least she’d added a please.
In my fading memory, this happened in a flurry of seconds. I didn’t think everyone staring at me agreed about what to share with the woman—the mother and grandmother and sister and friend and aunt—waiting in the hospital bed. I’d guess some wanted to be open and honest. I’d guess some were hesitant to argue with the dangling earrings. I’d guess some refused to believe the seriousness of the woman’s illness. I’d guess some were eager to avoid emotional subjects. But my glance at the family huddled in the alcove led to another guess: the woman in front of me was their rule maker. Right now, her words were their words.
I removed my tag and continued to the hospital room. Even if I could remember my conversation with the patient in the bed, I wouldn’t share it . . . it was confidential, after all. But I didn’t say I was from hospice. And whatever I explained about health care options, “hospice” was never voiced in my presentation.
I felt like a liar. I regretted it . . . and yet didn’t.
In a perfect world that doesn’t exist, I would’ve preferred to spend a few perfect moments in that alcove helping a family understand the importance of truth and trust and facing facts. But that was not my job in that first, awkward meeting.
I was the guy from hospice, and even without the nametag attached to my shirt, I wanted to honor the family’s needs.
Hospice staff will slip nametags into pockets and purses and briefcases at a family’s request. But I hope the tags return when the patient and caregivers learn hospice prioritizes supporting them as they confront today’s limited choices and today’s life-giving possibilities.
(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)by