Last month my 93-year-old uncle fell. He broke his hip and cracked his pelvis.
In the hospital, the doctor told him he would only live a few more weeks. He said it to both of us, just a matter of fact, knowing that my uncle’s inability to swallow, his pain and his pneumonia would all conspire to take him down.
“There’s nothing more we can do,” said the doctor. My uncle nodded, and then he looked at me and shrugged.
I’d like to say it was I who held my uncle’s hand in the weeks that followed, but it was really he who held mine.
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Words between us came in spurts, along with tears, prayers and the soft humming of favorite hymns. We laughed some too, mostly at my cold, cold hands. He called me “Cool Hand Luke” whenever I entered the room.
At the same time I sat in hospice with my uncle, a 15-year-old Curtis High School student named Kayla Lee boarded a plane and headed off to Rwanda to join a team of medical professionals, all of whom were a part of Hospice Without Borders.
Once upon a time, Kayla was the only girl on my son’s second-grade soccer team. She was a force on the field, so it didn’t surprise me to see her take on such a big trip with a daunting mission.
While my uncle slept, and he slept a lot, I followed Kayla’s story on Facebook.
Since Kayla’s been a little girl she’s helped her mom, Angela Lee, organize and inventory donated medical supplies for Hospice without Borders. Kayla’s mom is a hospice nurse, and in 2010 she co-founded Hospice Without Borders, a nonprofit agency dedicated to bringing palliative care and hospice services to those most in need.
When her mom planned another trip to Rwanda for November 2014, Kayla begged to be part of the team. Kayla’s learned enough about hospice to know that it’s not just the dying who need care. End-of-life issues affect the entire family. Most of all, Kayla thought of the children.
She collected art supplies and designed a program that would allow kids to express their sorrow in any language. The children Kayla would be meeting in Rwanda have had a lifetime exposure to death – from AIDS, disease, cancer, lack of food and clean water. Every family has been touched.
Kayla describes Rwanda as a beautiful place and the people there among the best she’s ever met. She also describes a land that is still healing. While there she visited memorials dedicated to the 1994 genocide. She saw rows and rows of coffins and human skulls stacked high on shelves. She read stories of children who didn’t make it out alive, and she wept for their loss.
Most of us do our best to avoid the topic of death. We face death reluctantly, only if we have to, like I did with my uncle. Most of us don’t get on planes to meet it face to face.
Kayla says her trip to Rwanda and her work in the hospice field made her more sure of her own life and how she wants to spend it. She told me she’d never forget the way a dying man looked at her after she bought him a mattress, and the way his children played with her hair.
This was Kayla’s first hospice trip, but she said it wouldn’t be her last.
I am in awe of people like Kayla. Hospice workers are saints as far as I’m concerned, for what else do you call people so willing to put aside their own comfort for the comfort of others?
The doctor was wrong when he said there was nothing more we could do for my uncle. In the weeks before my uncle finally slipped away, I told him how much his life mattered, and that he wasn’t alone. This is the work of hospice. This is the work of love.
Karen Irwin of Tacoma teaches writing at Clover Park Technical College. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.