After fighting three primary cancers in 30 years, Daniel Collins, 74, was coming home from the hospital to die in his own bed. What I didn’t realize that day last April was that because I, the hospice nurse, was present upon his return from hospital, Dan believed he would die that same day.
As I completed my admitting paperwork at the kitchen table, Dan’s son-in-law told me that Dan was sitting up, exhausted and too terrified to sleep because he believed he would die as soon as he slept. His head bobbed back and forth as he fought to stay awake. I quickly explained to him that I was there to move in his equipment, arrange his medications, and make sure he had everything he needed to keep him comfortable in the days and weeks ahead. He was skeptical, but decided to trust me and soon fell asleep. When he awoke, he was pleasantly surprised to find me still sitting at his bedside.
I explained to him that hospice is not a timeframe or a place, but a philosophy of care, and that we help people to live life to the fullest with their disease before we help them die peacefully from that same disease process. When Dan started telling his family that he thought maybe he had a week to live instead of a day, I explained that instead of counting down his days, he should maximize the time in between with his wife and family.
He decided to get out of bed and go get a haircut and his family posted pictures of him on Facebook in the barber’s chair smiling and laughing. Soon after that, he ventured to the mall to buy some clothes to fit his new slimmer build so he could look handsome as he socialized. It helped divert his attention away from death. Every week there were pictures of Dan on Facebook at christenings, parties, eating in restaurants — all documenting for his extended family how well he was doing.
On Father’s Day in June, he was leaving a party and had a bad fall that bruised his nose. Though he laughed it off and said it didn’t hurt, he became weaker every day and eventually was forced back to bed.
One day he asked me, “How will my death look?” I promised him if he would trust me that I would ensure that his death would be painless and he would just go to sleep peacefully. On the morning of July 13, 2015, I decided to visit him and spend some time with him. He was agitated when I arrived so I took his hand and said, “Dan, it’s Sandra. I’m going to stay right here so you can relax now.”
He immediately settled down and went into a peaceful sleep and stayed like that until 3:53 p.m., when he took his last unlabored breath. My promise, with God’s help, was fulfilled.
This article originally appeared in Everyday Compassion magazine. To browse full issues of the magazine, click here.