My passion for health care started with a nervous phone call. “Hello,” a deep raspy voice answers the phone. “Hi Thomas, I’m Kylyn, your hospice volunteer,” I said with anxious enthusiasm. “One minute, this is his wife,” the voice replied. I think to myself, “This is a bad start with my first hospice patient and his family”. Thomas comes to the phone with his quiet voice and I quickly apologize for the mix-up, blame bad reception and tell him I’ll be out soon for his visit. His wife wants to go to the grocery store and clean her house and she can’t do this unless someone else is with her husband. My job is to take Thomas to get his hair cut and bring him home. I was excited to be a volunteer because I could engage the patients face to face without the uneasiness of having to draw blood or take vital signs.
I drive up to his humble house; it’s down a dirt road in between two fields in rural Michigan. There are only a few houses around his and the corn in the field is just starting to grow. I’m still really nervous. I think to myself, “Will I be able to relate to him? He is in his late 70’s and I’m only 17.” I walk up their stairs lined with tiny potted flowers and knock on the door. Thomas’ wife answers and thus begins my first visit with my first hospice patient.
She is a larger woman with short white hair and he is a fragile old man with glasses and suspenders. As he walks around, the long thin tube from his oxygen tank follows him. I don’t remember why exactly he was on service, but when I first saw him I didn’t think he was dying; he didn’t talk like he was dying, he didn’t act like he was dying. I remember vividly his aged hands buttoning up his sweater, tying his shoes and waving goodbye to his wife. He wheels his oxygen tank out the door, I carry it down the stairs and we head to his barber.
Conversation comes easy, my nerves quickly fade and we even share laughs. As we get close to the barbershop, he starts to feel around his baggy brown pants and realizes he forgot his wallet. “I guess I’m getting old,” he jokes. He tells me to go to the bank so I just do what he asks. I wasn’t going to tell Thomas that you can’t ask the bank for money without a check or a debit card. We reach the drive up window, “Well good morning Thomas, who is your friend?” the teller asks. “This is my hospice volunteer. I need a favor sweetheart, I forgot my wallet, can you loan me twenty?” he kindly questions. The teller comes back with a crisp twenty-dollar bill. Driving away from the bank, I was shocked that the teller gave him money. This was nothing new for Thomas. He was a charmer everyone loved and trusted.
We continue talking as we drive to the barbershop. He doesn’t have much white hair left. “I like to look good for the ladies,” he quips. The barber comes over, helps wheel Thomas’ oxygen tank to his chair and they start talking like two women at a shoe sale. Whenever someone sees Thomas, their eyes light up and they embrace him with a loving hug or an enthusiastic handshake.
I was able to visit Thomas for almost 3 months before he passed away. Every time I visited, he filled my day with joy and always made me smile. I thought it was my job to make Thomas’ time more enjoyable but the roles reversed. Hospice gave Thomas the ability to remain in his own home, to be himself before he died, to look good for the ladies’ and enjoy a nice car ride on a sunny afternoon. As a volunteer, I was able to benefit from the simple pleasures Thomas loved. I started Youth For Hospice in my hometown to give other high school students the opportunity to experience the gifts we receive when we give to others. As a lawyer, I now can work to ensure others, like Thomas, have the same opportunities to access insurance coverage as well as quality of care.
My first thought of hospice was that volunteering would be hard because I was dealing with people who were about to die. The first images in my head were of old people in hospital beds, watching the Price is Right, hunched over their yogurt from breakfast. This was not Thomas and this is not hospice. I quickly learned by watching Thomas’ interactions with the world around him that I was the lucky one. I was fortunate to spend some of Thomas’ last months with him, learning from the wise old veteran that the end of your life doesn’t have to be boring or spent in a standardized semi-electric hospital bed. I learned that I could help people through simple interactions that didn’t involve things that were strictly medical. I love working with and for the patients, I just did not want to work on them.
Not every patient after Thomas was as enthusiastic about life, but being able to help people take pride in their last days while still making new memories is what makes dealing with a looming death bearable. I want to make sure that others have the same opportunities Thomas had and that they have the chance to enjoy EVERY part of their lives, even the end.
Thomas helped me find my passion in health care by allowing me to discover a greater sense of worth. From taking classes at Tufts University to volunteering with my law firm’s health-related Pro Bono program, I have explored other opportunities in the health care field since my first hospice visit. With every new channel of health care I discover, my passion and love for the field grows exponentially.
In today’s world, there are major problems with the national health care system. Listing them all is a separate essay in itself. Health care is multi-faceted and related to policy, corporate governance and the effects of application by the provider and the recipient. The practice of law in policy and function can have a dramatic and direct impact in the way people consume and use all aspects of health care. If one were to look at all of the individuals who have reached the age of 65, from the beginning of recorded time, one would discover two-thirds of this population to be alive today, (Ken Dychatwald). The next thirty years will be the most trying period our health care system has ever experienced. The changes to drive improvement will be based in policy and in practice. The courses offered at the University of Maryland, particularly the Certificate in Health Care Law program address these matters. Lawyer’s contributions in the past made it possible for Thomas to enjoy life through hospice. I want to be part of the next generation of lawyers that continue to ensure this access. Every time I am able to help others through health care, I thank Thomas for helping me find my passion.
Kylyn Deary, Hospice Volunteer