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Hospice Worker Guides Families and Patients Through Life's End

By Cindy Atoji Keene

In his role as a hospice worker, supporting dying patients and their families, Joe Ackerman has been in the room when a person takes their last breath more times than he can count. For Ackerman, an administrator at The Merrimack Valley Hospice House in Haverhill, these final moments are often filled with dignity and grace. “It is an honor for me to be allowed in these rooms,” said Ackerman. “You see the best in people at that time, and I leave with a sense of love and spirit that reaffirms life.”

Ackerman, 40, said patients come to hospice when a cure is no longer possible for their terminal illness, whether HIV, congestive heart failure, neurological diseases, or respiratory distress. For cancer patients, hospice can be a peaceful end to depleting rounds of chemotherapy appointments and exhausting pain and nausea. “There is still so much focus on cure, cure, cure, and the medical community often has a hard time acknowledging that treatments are no longer working, and can even take away from a patient’s quality of life in the last few months,” said Ackerman.

Hospice care typically is a team of workers – nurses, chaplains, home health aides, social workers, and others who help make end-of-life more comfortable. “Often it is the smallest interventions that make the biggest difference, whether the holding of hand, dealing with insurance companies, or a phone call to a family member,” said Ackerman.

Q: How did you become interested in hospice care?
A: I was a competitive ski racer when I was younger, and worked with a lot of sports psychologists. It intrigued me that our minds are a machine that we have control over, and I saw a strong mind-body connection. I became a medical social worker and eventually worked in oncology. The intimacy that I developed with patients and family during such a critical time of life really resonated me. Hospice allows me to walk with patients and family during part of life’s journey.

Q: What sort of patients do you see?
A: When I started five years ago, we served mostly elderly with a scattering of young patients, but now it’s changing. Just recently I visited a 32-year-old mother with two young kids who is dying of brain cancer. Sadly now we also have kids in our pediatric palliative program who have diseases so complex that I can’t even tell you half of their diagnosis.

Q: What have you learned by working in a hospice?
A: Every day I learn how to appreciate life. Patients will say to me, “Live this day to the fullest. Don’t wait to do the things you want to do.” This grounds me and teaches me never to take anything for granted. Every day after work, I walk into the house and give my wife and kids a big hug, grateful that I have this time with them.

Q: What sort of questions do families and patients ask you?
A: I get asked a lot, “How much time do they have left?” but I don’t have a crystal ball. Families also ask me about how the patient is handling their last days and are hesitant to talk about death – it’s a taboo topic. The patient may be at peace, but the caregivers may not be on the same page. I try to help them all be ready to move on during a terribly emotional time.

Q: Do you believe in life after death?
A: I do now. There was a period when I didn’t, but I’ve seen too often where someone dying will have visions of loved ones from the past and say, “My mother or daughter is with me now.” It makes me believe that there has to something there.

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