A Last Christmas with Sara

This bucket-list story is about sweet young Sara (name changed). We had the honor of caring for Sara, and of working with her family to help prepare them for life without her.

One of their bucket-list wishes was to make sure they had one more Christmas together before losing Sara. Unfortunately, it wasn’t going to be easy. Her medical care up to that point had been intense, and it wiped out nearly all they had. They weren’t sure how they would truly make it Christmas, since gifts for Sara and her siblings seemed out of the question. Plus, her Hospice Care Plus team was fairly sure Sara wouldn’t be with them by Christmas.

But, as always, the hospice team met to come up with a plan. They worked closely with Sara’s family to see if they were open to having Christmas a little early. Not only were they willing to do it, they embraced the idea. Together, Sara’s parents, siblings, and the hospice team planned a family Christmas celebration to remember.

Everyone at Hospice Care Plus pitched in to find a Santa Claus, a very kind gentleman from Mt. Vernon, Ky., who agreed to volunteer his services, including traveling to Sara’s home in Jackson County, Ky. There were no extra funds at our hospice to purchase gifts for all the children, so the hospice team and other staff used their own money to make sure every child had a few gifts. The family and the team also worked together to decorate the house.

When the day finally arrived, it was as authentic as any Christmas we’ve seen. There were gifts, trees, decorations, and an entire family gathered together to celebrate.

The highlight of the day was seeing sweet Sara rest so peacefully on Santa’s lap and in his arms. She was so content and comfortable, she fell asleep in his lap as Christmas went on around her.

Bucket-list wishes like these aren’t just for patients, although it was definitely a memorable day for Sara. They are for the families, too. It is a gift to Sara’s parents that, even in the midst of the unfathomable pain of losing a child, they have this special day to remember—a magical Christmas together, complete with their own Santa Claus and gifts for everyone.

To Make Thanksgiving Dressing One More Time

LeAndra Sullivan, 57, a bubbly, irrepressible optimist with a heart of gold, refused to let cancer keep her from living. In fact, that’s why she chose hospice care—she had too much left to do, and she needed help making sure she could do it.

Junie Barclay, her primary hospice nurse, also full of spirit, was the perfect partner in crime for LeAndra.

“The first few times Junie was here, we cried together,” LeAndra told us. “But on that third visit, we both said, ‘That’s enough. Now we’re going to laugh.’ And we did! We’ve laughed and laughed together.”

They also planned. LeAndra came home from the hospital with hospice on October 28, 2014. On her first visit with LeAndra, Junie asked what was most important to her.
“I want to be here, at home, enjoying the little things,” LeAndra told her. “I want to spend time with my grandbaby, Blane, because he is my light.”

Then she added a milestone she wanted to meet–her bucket-list wish: be alive and at home at Thanksgiving, and be well enough to make her beloved dressing one more time, so Karen, her daughter, could learn to make it herself.

“Hers is better than anyone’s,” says Karen. “I wanted her to make it and I wanted to watch, write down the ingredients, and learn.”

Junie immediately worked with LeAndra and Karen to develop a plan of care centered on helping her meet her goals. They plotted out what had to happen in order for LeAndra, who was mostly bedbound, to be able to sit or stand at a kitchen counter long enough to make the dressing.

It would be a challenge. LeAndra’s cancer had metastasized to several parts of her body. Massive pain crippled her, and she had been in a coma for months after having a bad response to chemotherapy treatments.
“We had to get her pain under control, re-educate LeAndra and Karen on how to take the medications, and develop enough strength and good body mechanics for her to be able to leave the bed,” says Junie.

The Hospice Care Plus team scheduled extra visits to give their plan the best chance of working in time for Thanksgiving. Within a few weeks, they had success. On Thanksgiving Day, using a special chair that helped lift LeAndra to the counter, she made the dressing one last time, with Karen at her side.

Passing on the traditional dressing recipe to her daughter meant the world to LeAndra.

“We had the most beautiful day I’ve ever had in my life that Thanksgiving,” LeAndra said.

LeAndra died on March 15, 2015, after a five-year battle with cancer and five wonderful months at home with hospice care. Her daughter, Karen, has so many memories from her mom’s time at home—memories that will be especially poignant each Thanksgiving, when she makes her mother’s dressing.

“Leandra had the best outlook on life,” says Junie. “She was full of life and determined to live it—truly live it—until her last breath. I’m very proud to have been a part of that.”

To Continue Her Pedicures with Sam

You may have noticed that our bucket-list stories are often, at their heart, about relationships. Even those that seem to be about something else really have relationships at their root.

This bucket-list story will seem to be about something superficial: pedicures. But keep reading, because this one is also about a relationship and how important it became to Mrs. Williams.

Mrs. Williams loves pedicures. Every couple of weeks, she goes to her favorite salon for a visit with her favorite nail technician. Over time, she and this nail-tech, Sam (name changed), developed a friendship that both of them enjoyed. Mrs. Williams found him easy to chat with, and Sam liked making her laugh.

Even after she was admitted to our hospice home program, she continued her regular appointments with Sam.

Until she couldn’t.

She missed Sam and her pedicure. If this seems superficial to you, just think for a moment: when everything else is changing around you and you know time is limited, it’s tempting to hold on the hardest to those things that make us feel most normal. Like pedicures.

Plus, she liked Sam a lot, and she missed him.

As it turned out, Sam missed her, too. He had noticed how hard it was becoming for her to get to the salon. Without mentioning it to her, he was planning for the day that she couldn’t come in. Using his own money, he bought the supplies and equipment he’d need in order to do pedicures in her home.

He gave her a call, and they set an appointment. That was weeks ago. He continues to come each week. Our care team simply plans its visits around Sam’s pedicures. We know how important they—and Sam—are to Mrs.
Williams. We wouldn’t dream of interfering with that.

We love Mrs. Williams’s bucket-list wish, because it’s about so much more than beautiful toes. It’s about continuing to live and to have hope—that we can enjoy the bonds we have with the people around us, and that we can live and laugh and love, until we take our last breath.

To Get Back Home

Nancy Isaacs, a Hospice Care Plus nurse, now retired but with 20-plus years under her belt, will never forget one patient’s bucket-list story.

“He hadn’t lived in our county very long,” remembers Nancy. “He was from a small town in eastern Kentucky, and his greatest wish was to have his body taken back there to be buried in the family cemetery.”

The patient explained to Nancy and his hospice social worker, Jennifer, that the family cemetery was the only place where he felt he’d truly be at home.

“He said all his people were buried there,” says Nancy, “and that he wanted to be there with them.”

It was also important because he and his wife had almost no money, no life insurance, and no way to pay for burial anywhere else.

They also had no money for a casket.

His preoccupation with this challenge kept him from finding peace with what was to come.  So Nancy, Jennifer, and the rest of his hospice care team came up with a plan.

Jennifer enlisted her boyfriend’s help, talking him into finding wood and building a casket. Nancy and Jennifer agreed to purchase the materials to make the pillow and padding for the casket, and also to do the sewing. Family and church volunteers agreed to transport his coffin to the family cemetery.

“We told him what we were doing,” Nancy says. “He just couldn’t believe somebody would do that for him.”

For nearly four weeks, Jennifer and Nancy took their sewing machines to work with them. They left them in their cars during working hours, but brought them into their office as soon as their shift was over.

“We didn’t have any patterns or anything, just the casket measurements,” says Nancy. “We felt we needed to hurry so he could see that it was taken care of, so we sewed together most evenings after work, right there in the office.”

When the casket was complete and fitted with the padding and pillow, Nancy, Jennifer, and the rest of his team presented it to him and to his wife.

“He really loved the casket,” says Nancy. “He still couldn’t quite believe it, but he was thrilled.”

Although he died soon after, Nancy and the team noticed that a burden had been lifted and he was able to find peace.

“He was worried that he’d be a burden to his wife, because she’d have to find the money to buy a casket or pay for funeral home transportation to his family cemetery. He was finally at peace, and he needed that. He needed peace.”