By Caroline Wigmore
WINSTED, MN - When Melissa Neumann’s father died suddenly and tragically from a fall, she didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.
As a hospice nurse who gets to say goodbye to so many of her patients before they pass away, this was particularly difficult.
“It’s a blessing to be able to say your good-byes,” Neumann said.
It was after a co-worker suggested that Neumann would make a good hospice nurse that she realized she had a heart for patients facing end-of-life care needs.
“I was scared to begin with,” Neumann said. “But now I believe it is definitely what I was meant to do.” Today Neumann works as a hospice nurse for the Ridgeview Medical Center.
“People don’t talk about death in our culture,” Neumann said.
Years ago, birth and death were commonplace in the family home and accepted as natural events, but today, hospice workers find that this is not the case.
People often ask Neumann how she can handle a job where she is constantly confronted with death, but she sees it as an honor to meet her patients, and be a part of the end of their lives.
Neumann doesn’t deny that it’s a tough job, as she often finds herself very attached to her patients and their families, but it’s a job that can be done, Neumann said.
Hospice care not only serves elderly patients, but also children and infants as well, and Neumann’s patients can range drastically in age, illness, and situation.
Some moments stick out in Neumann’s mind as she looks back at her experiences with her patients.
“I remember having a patient a while back who was a 5 or 6-year-old little boy. His mother was rocking him in her arms when he passed away,” Neumann said. “His brothers were in the next room. It was sad, but it was very peaceful.
“And then there was another woman I remember who woke up at 2 a.m. and wanted to play cards with her family. She passed away not too long after that,” Neumann said.
It’s not all doom and gloom though, Neumann says, and the goal of hospice care is to help people live.
“We don’t go into a person’s home and just talk about death all the time,” Neumann said.
The hospice team might take a person on a special trip, such as ice fishing, to their family cabin, or to a baseball game as one of their final requests.
The team of hospice workers that work with Neumann use humor and the each other’s support to get through tough cases.
“Our chaplain probably uses the most humor,” Neumann laughed.
Working with the dying can take its toll on a hospice team, which is why special meetings are conducted in cases that are particularly difficult, in order to give the team the extra support they need.
The team also conducts two memorial services per year for the families that have lost a loved one, but also for the benefit of the staff who worked with them. This service proves to be a place of release for the staff as they are able to look back, and come to terms with the loss of their patients.
Neumann noted that many people are unaware of all the services hospice care has to offer.
“Hospice isn’t a place, it’s a philosophy of care, serving patients wherever they may be,” Neumann said, explaining that hospice services are often used by patients who have been told the treatment for their illness is no longer effective and who want to spend their last days at home.
A hospice care team is composed of the patient’s doctor, a nurse, a social worker who helps the family coordinate services and identify community resources, a spiritual care giver, therapists, volunteers, a medical director, a home health aide, and a grief counselor.
It is the intention of the hospice team to follow a patient through the entire cycle of their illness, from first entering into hospice care, through the death of the patient, and then follows the family for a year after their loved one has passed away to ensure that they have the grief counseling resources that they may need.
The families of those who pass away at home without hospice care have to endure an investigation into the death of their loved one, as all “home deaths” require this.
Families who opt for hospice care don’t have to call 911 after the death, because the hospice team deals directly with the coroner and is able to bypass a police investigation.
Another strength of the program is that most of the nurses are community nurses, meaning that they serve patients who live in their communities.
“I go to church with these families, and see them at the grocery store,” Neumann said.
Living near her patients gives her a better advantage for serving them.
Neumann gained a new empathy for her patients and their families as she cared for her mother-in-law. Elaine Neumann during the end of her life, which allows her to truly understand the things that a family goes through during a death.
While Elaine was spending her last days at home, she requested that her family gather around her. They came from near and far, and Melissa remembers a special time for the family as they stood around her bed and sang together.
Though it may be difficult for Neumann’s patients and families to face the reality of their situation, she still believes that it’s a blessing for families to be able to gather and share their loved one’s last moments.
“It’s a gift to have that time,” Neumann said.
For those who have questions about hospice care, first contact your physician.
The Ridgeview hospice team is also available to answer questions and can be reached at (952) 442-6030.