COLUMBUS — Joe Badstieber was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2011 and underwent chemotherapy.
A few years passed and eventually his doctors told him and his wife, Jan, they could choose to continue chemo, but it wouldn’t remove all the cancer.
“And that's when he said, 'I'm done,'" said Jan. “And that was the hardest thing he'd ever heard, but it was his decision.”
His doctors had mentioned hospice to them before, but neither Jan nor Joe knew what it was. When Joe decided to discontinue chemotherapy, their oncologist explained in depth what hospice was and they decided to do a consultation with social worker Lisa Weber from Home Health Hospices of Columbus Community Hospital.
“We were still trying to decide what we wanted to do,” said Jan. “And then she came and explained the program to us and then it was something that we felt we needed to do.”
Hospice and palliative care are based in the patient’s residence. The care specializes in pain and symptom control and is built around helping the patient and their family through a severe or terminal illness.
But nurses from Home Health Hospices of Columbus Community Hospital say their job is about much more than that.
“People think that our job is all about death, but it’s not,” said nurse Heather Elton. “It’s all about living and it’s about living what time they have to the best of their ability and the way that they want to live their life.”
One aspect is helping patients define and reach their goals.
“I’ve had patients, the daughter put on her wedding dress so he could see her because he wasn’t going to make it to the wedding,” said nurse Lela Schaecher. “It can be anything from doing something or seeing someone, a family member that has been dispensed and never been home, a new grandbaby or wedding.”
One of the primary goals is to ensure the patient is as comfortable and pain-free as possible. Nurses will check in with patients and also teach families things they can do to make them more comfortable.
“They would give him a bath if he needed it and then they would explain maybe we should have all the facilities that hospice offers like a hospital bed, oxygen, meds,” said Jan.
The Badstiebers, like other families in their situation, worked together to care for Joe, which can be stressful and emotionally draining. Hospice nurses recognize this.
“I think it’s just a really nice thing that families allow us to come into their home to be with them during this time that's so sensitive,” said nurse Pam Sutton.
Jody Willison, also a nurse, agreed.
“It’s very intimate to be in someone’s home when they experience something like that," she said.
Jan appreciated the way the nurses explained Joe’s condition and took the time to look after her, as well, by giving her a chance to get out of the house knowing Joe was in good hands.
“When they came in here they were almost like family members because they knew right what to do,” said Jan. “They said if you want to go someplace just go because we're going to be here for such and such a time."
It was also a relief to have someone she could call anytime she needed help. She recalled an incident when she was having trouble giving Joe some medicine and had a hospice nurse on the phone telling her what to do.
“And I said, ‘Don't you hang up on me until I see that this pill's gone down,” said Jan. “They were very good.”
More often than not, the patient eventually comes to accept death and is ready to pass on. Hospice social worker Lisa Weber said it’s often the families who have a harder time coping.
“Grief is hard,” she said. “When you lose somebody it is permanent and it is hard.”
Hospice and palliative nurses’ jobs entail not only the medical but also the emotional side of end-of-life care. They take the time to get to know their patients and their families, meeting their grandchildren, looking at photos, petting their dogs or cats. They form strong bonds that continue even after the patient has passed.
“We even just see families in Hy-Vee, on the street, or just random things in The Telegram — their birthday's coming up or their wife or whatever and you send them a card,” said Willison.
Every year the local hospice program holds a memorial service for those patients who passed away to remember them and reconnect with their families. They’re also holding a program called Grief Share to help families and friends get through the holidays without their loved ones.
Willison said her experience as a hospice nurse has affected the way she sees life.
“(I) certainly don't take anything for granted,” she said. “We see patients that from 0 to 100 or 106 is our oldest patient, but you just never know. You don't know what tomorrow will bring.”
Joe Badstieber died in May 2014. Jan said caring for him and seeing the way the hospice nurses cared for him made her feel less anxious about her own death.
“Joe was never in pain,” she said. “It was peaceful. Joe was kind of coherent until the end. His sister and niece were here and we were in (the room) when he passed away. It was inspiring just to see how peaceful he went.”