Wendy Walsh, RDH, of Crown Point, Ind., has two types of patients. The first need Walsh’s help with typical hygiene care and education. The second need her help with dying.
“People don’t like to talk about death,” Walsh says, “but it’s something everyone faces. Someday, each of us will have to do this. The dying don’t need our sympathy, but they do need empathy, and they need someone to listen. Isn’t that what a lot of hygiene is about?”
Walsh has been a hygienist 31 years in northwest Indiana. She’s been a volunteer with Harbor Light Hospice in Merrillville, Ind., for four years. She applied to volunteer for several reasons.
“When my mother died, my sister and I were alone and had no support whatsoever,” Walsh says. “We could have used the help of a hospice organization. Then a friend and patient who is a hospice nurse told me about her work, and I loved the concept of working with the terminally ill. And finally, a bereavement pastor spoke at a hygiene meeting I attended. I sat there and thought, ‘I could do this.’ So I called our local hospice and went through the training.”
Hospice volunteers complete more than 20 hours of training that include everything from the history and philosophy of hospice work, to body language and coping mechanisms, to signs and symptoms of approaching death.
Volunteers learn about universal precautions, bloodborne pathogens, and infection control. They learn about stress management for themselves and how to cope with emergencies. They are given identifying jackets and nametags, and are assigned to their patients in private residences or nursing homes.
Walsh thinks hospice is a natural extension of her career path.
“Because I’ve worked long term at my dental office, I know our families,” she says. “The same compassion and empathy I have for them just travels to my hospice families.”
Walsh doesn’t intend to give up hygiene for hospice work. She still “feels terrific” about her career.
“This is a great time to be a hygienist, with digital radiography, practice management, computerization, intraoral cameras. I’ve had a great time in dentistry,” she says.
She has been working full time in one office for the past eight years.
“I don’t see retirement at all in my future,” she says.
Walsh is an active member of the Northwest Indiana Dental Hygiene Association. She serves as secretary and is on multiple committees.
She graduated from Southern Illinois University in 1973 and worked as a certified dental assistant before that. Walsh worked in general and periodontal offices, then took time off when her children were small. She and her husband, Jim, have been married 30 years and have two college-age children, Caitlyn and Jim.
After her hospice training, Walsh was assigned to a nursing home that has a dedicated hospice room.
“It’s bigger than a regular room, so more family can visit, and there’s a nice stereo,” she says. “I can take my keyboard and play music for them. I sit and listen, I do hand massages, I act as a compassionate friend.”
Walsh says that during her first visit, she was frightened and not sure how it would go.
“But it was the most amazing thing,” she says. “I stayed two and a half hours and brought my husband to visit later. My patient was so thankful for every minute, and it made me wonder why I was worried about mundane problems at home, like wallpaper.”
Walsh’s patients, she says, have accepted their approaching death.
“They know they’re terminal,” she says. “As a companion and friend, my sole goal is to comfort the patients in their last days. I hold their hands. They’re usually very thankful for every day they have. One patient told me recently that she feels lucky to be terminal. ‘Who else has a chance to correct wrongs, and say goodbyes?’ she asked me. Oh my gosh, what a phenomenal outlook! I want to bless these people, and I end up being blessed by them.”
Sometimes, Walsh shares her faith with patients.
“Many times with a terminal patient, a huge spiritual side comes out,” she says. “In our training, we study the spiritual dimension of dying. I can share my faith, I do a lot of listening, and I pray with them.”
At about the same time Walsh began volunteering with hospice, her family took in a puppy. “Abbey” is half-Labrador retriever and half Siberian husky. She grew up to be a calm, friendly 70-pound dog who is accepting of strangers and unafraid of loud noises. Walsh knew she’d make a perfect pet-therapy dog.
“I taught her to heel, to sit, to wave bye-bye,” Walsh says. “As soon as she was old enough, I put her in the Hospice Pet Team Program. We went through training and testing, and she was certified six months ago as a therapy dog.
“The patients love her. She helps me bond. By myself, it can be hard to get into a person’s heart, but with Abbey, they open up. These people are so starving for touch. They reach out, they lean over, they can’t wait for her. She’s happy and nuzzling everyone.
“They touch her and rub her fur. She evokes memories. They might be sitting there expressionless, then Abbey comes up and there’s an instant physical response. Their eyes light up, their hands reach out, they start talking.”
Therapy pets, it has been shown, can calm ill people, lower their blood pressure, and reduce their need for pain medication.
Abbey and Walsh are assigned to a single nursing home and spend several hours a month with the home’s hospice patients.
“It’s important work,” Walsh says. “When we come into this world, we’re met with warmth and love. We must offer the same at death.”
When patients inevitably die, it’s always a shock, she says.
“I feel terrible every time, and it takes a while to get over it. It’s hard. I’ve gone to wakes, especially when I know the family. But every patient is unique, and I’ve learned a lot from them. They bless me and teach me. I wanted my volunteer time to count for something, and it does.”The word “hospice” comes from the Latin word “hospes,” meaning “to host a guest or stranger.” As far back as prehistoric times, communities have delegated people to care for the dying. In medieval times, the duty often fell to monks and nuns. During the world wars, hospitals took on the care of the dying.
In England in 1967, Dr. Cecily Saunders opened St. Christopher’s Hospice, a refuge for the dying, with a £500 bequest from a patient.
Today, the word “hospice” doesn’t actually refer to a place, but to a philosophy of care for terminal patients and their families and loved ones. Anyone who has been diagnosed as having six months or less to live can enter hospice care. A multi-disciplinary team that might include nurses, physical therapists, chaplains, social workers, and trained volunteer visitors, among others, assists the patient and family in the process of dying. Care continues for 13 months after a death, to help the family past the one-year anniversary.