I’ve recently taken on a new role at the hospice. Every Wednesday morning I help out in the gym. I love it. The day begins with a morning meeting where staff and volunteers gather to run through all the day patients that are expected in, and update on whether they are “less well”, “better” or “dead”. The care and love I see in the eyes of every staff member when they talk of their patients is quite extraordinary. I am then given a list of in-patients who have expressed an interest in some exercise, and a list of the day care patients who are coming in for physio. After a quick cup of tea in the Anniversary Centre (the main hub of the hospice) and a chat to the patients and volunteers, I head up to the wards in the hope that some of the patients will still be feeling capable of some exercise. So far, only about 3 in 10 of the patients on my list actually end up coming down to the gym with me. Most of the time they just can’t face getting out of bed. The hardest thing about this moment in the day is seeing the shame and disappointment in their faces.
The rest of the day involves me ferrying patients back and forth from either the ward or the anniversary centre to the gym. Then I might assist them on their motormed machine (amazing arm and leg machine that moves your limbs for you if you are too weak to do it yourself) and chat to them about their day. Everyone’s favourite exercise is the Wii balance game…there’s a little competition going on between staff, patients and volunteers. Ronald, a 93 year old patient is currently in lead place.
Each week, at the end of the day, I find myself bouncing out of the hospice, filled with this amazing life force. Even though I’m spending more and more time with people who are facing the end of their lives, not always bravely and readily as we might hope, I find my time there so incredibly enriching and uplifting. Not because I’m thinking “thank god them and not me”. It’s hard to explain, I just feel like a nicer, better, happier person when I spend my time there with these people. I feel softer. And life feels lighter.
In fact, last week I got talking to a patient I hadn’t met before. He is about 87 and has no teeth. He began telling me with great enthusiasm of all the things he loves about the hospice and I found myself looking forward to my turn at being a patient there. I had a vision of myself at the hospice, old (hopefully) and probably rather grumpy, sitting next to my favourite friend, chatting to the nice nurses, going to art class and so on. It was quite strange. It wasn’t a longing to die; there was no urgency there. I just had this wonderful sense of OK-ness at the idea of dying and more specifically, dying there.
Having said that, I’m not trying to glamourise dying in a hospice. Plenty of the patients are terribly unhappy and feel a whole mix of unpleasant emotions…shame, fear, rage, guilt. And as hard as the medical team work, sometimes the pain relief just isn’t sufficient and many of them are hurting all the time. Its quite shocking to see the physical manifestation of the way in which human bodies deteriorate, en masse; to see the way our internal organs crumble and disintegrate, one by one, until they all come to a halt. I have found myself feeling angry at times…that this is the way some of us have to depart the world. And yet others get knocked over by a bus and don’t know a thing.
Even so, ever since I’ve witnessed the dedication that goes in to making those last painful moments as bearable as possible, I’m still not certain I’d go for the quick route out.