Hospice nurses care for patients at the end of their lives. Their goal is to help people live as comfortably and independently as possible and with the least amount of pain, in their final days.
NorthBay Hospice nurses care for patients in their homes, where they can be close to their families and loved ones. “One of the important parts of my job is helping patients and their families feel more comfortable about death and providing them with the emotional support they need,” says Traci Reese, R.N.
Traci, a nurse for five years, and Cindy Desimone, R.N., a nurse with 30 years of experience, are among the eight registered nurses at NorthBay Hospice who feel privileged to care for patients as their journey through life ends.
Both women knew they were destined to be nurses. “I was a little girl with a nurse’s kit, setting out pills for all of my dolls,” Cindy recalls. “My aunt was a nurse too, so I had a good role model.”
Traci decided to become a hospice nurse after her stepdad died of cancer while being cared for by hospice. “Our hospice nurse was an angel,” she remembers. “I wanted to be just like her. I entered nursing school planning to become a hospice nurse.”
One of the most important parts of my job includes helping patients and their families feel more comfortable about death and providing them with the emotional support they need.
—Traci Reese, R.N.
NorthBay Hospice nurses are part of a team that cares for each patient and their family. The team consists of medical director Dr. Terry Van Aken, registered nurses, nurse case managers, licensed vocational nurses, a social worker, home health aides and a chaplain, if the family wishes.
Hospice is available to patients whose prognosis is six months or less, although no one can predict how long someone will live. The family provides the patient’s care and the hospice team is available 24/7 to support them.
“When I have a new family, my approach is to start my job as a social visit,” Traci explains. “A lot of our job is education—helping the family understand what will happen, how to give medications, and learn what is normal. We respect each patient’s journey. They are in charge, and we are just there to help. Every person is different and every family is different. Each patient changes you.”
In a profession dedicated to healing, the hospice nurse has a job that can take an emotional toll.
“You know that with each new case you will lose your patient,” Cindy explains. “It can get very emotional for us. We have a weekly meeting of all the hospice nurses and team members and we share our feelings, get ideas and find support.”
Cindy has a case load of eight to 12 families and sees four patients a day. She finds this schedule gives her enough time to give each patient the attention they need.
“It’s important to me that I’ve done all that I need to do,” she says. “And I have the flexibility and support to stay as long as I’m needed.”
Both nurses find that their profession is often misunderstood. “When you tell someone you’re a hospice nurse, the response is often ‘Oh! How sad!'” Cindy says. “But it’s very fulfilling to make people comfortable. We provide comfort and peace during a time that can be chaotic.”
The nurses have come to believe that life is a never-ending journey. “Things happen that make you a believer,” says Traci. “Things that just can’t be explained.”
Cindy remembers caring for a woman whose muscles had become so tight she couldn’t bend her arms, her legs or even her fingers. One day, Cindy entered her room and saw a light glowing around her patient. “She was beautiful. I touched her arms and the muscles were no longer tight. I had to sit down to take it all in. She passed shortly after that moment.”
Another time, Traci visited a patient’s home to find the husband singing “Swing low, sweet chariot” at his wife’s bedside. Two doors were open at the end of the room and someone closed them. A short time later, everyone felt a wind blow through the room and the doors opened on their own. The patient had died. “I guess that was the chariot taking her away,” the husband remarked.
“It’s beautiful to be there when someone passes. I’m not afraid of death because it is a passage to another realm,” Cindy says. “We witness people talking to loved ones who have passed and see the peace that comes over them.”
“Being with a family when a loved one dies is the most intimate experience,” Traci adds. “It is a privilege for me as a nurse, and I hope my presence is a comfort to the family.”