We were all sent out that week. It was a routine case: work to relieve the patient's pain, support the family, and meet whatever needs arose as time went by. I hadn't been at the hospice long, but recognized that Jim was considered to be at the very end, active phase of dying. His systems were shutting down. He wasn't eating or drinking much at all, hands and feet were getting cold, vital signs were looking worse and worse.
When I arrived, Jim was laying in his hospital bed in the middle of the living room with the family scattered all around. Jim's home sat on a hill overlooking a beautiful, small lake below. It was really quiet and peaceful there. With the head of the bed raised a little, Jim could look through the picture window at the lake below.
We gave Jim what he needed for his pain, and all the family members had flown in from around the country. We kept vigil and family members shared their thoughts and feeling with the hospice staff that were there. Some shared stories about Jim's life and what he had done. It was a privilege to be there and do what we could for them.
After a few days, I was assigned to other cases and didn't really think about Jim. I thought he was gone.
Six months later, I was working on-call to do hospice visits. They sent me out to do a dressing change. So, I gathered all my supplies and started out toward the address I was given. After driving a while, I said to myself, "this is in the same neighborhood as "that patient." Then, as I got closer, I realized it was on the same street. Only as I pulled up the drive did I realize it was Jim's house! I was really confused. It didn't make any sense. I thought, "It must be his wife who's in hospice now and needs the dressing changed." But when I looked at the patient record again, I saw it clearly indicated it was a man and his name was Jim. It was Jim! I couldn't believe it!
I knocked on the door, and Jim's wife guided me inside. Jim was up sitting up in a wheelchair, and I said with a smile, "Jim, you're not supposed to be here! What happened?"
Jim turned to me and said, "Well, that week, six months ago when you were all here, I lay in bed thinking it really was the end. But one night I looked up at the picture window and suddenly saw the face of Jesus. Just His face. After that, I got better and better and here I am!"
Although this was several years ago, I've never forgotten Jim and the face in the window!
Note: This is a true account but some details have been changed to protect the identity of the patient. In hospice, we always talk about encouraging the healing of family relationships at the end-of-life, helping the family and patient complete "unfinished business," and never hastening death. But what would have happened had Jim been terminally sedated six months earlier? We hospice staff and his family never would have seen him again or enjoyed his company through the time he was then given.
He never would have seen the face in the window; the dear Lord would never have had the opportunity to work in Jim's life, and you never would have read this true story. Those who promote terminal sedation care nothing for the true mission of hospice or the miracles that many hospice staff witness at the bedside of those we serve.
Many healthcare professionals who witness patient deaths can tell you their own stories of what they have seen. Miracles do happen when we honor the lives of those we serve and allow a natural death in its own timing. Doctors, if they are honest, will admit that there have been situations they just couldn't explain: patients who recovered when the experts were all sure it was the end.
Whenever anyone suggests it is "ok" to hasten death through assisted suicide, euthanasia or terminal sedation, I remember the face in the window and think, "what if?"
Jim told me what happened, and it helped me to know what is right. It helped me see what really is a "death with dignity." Jim's death, when it did eventually happen, had real dignity, something that only occurs when we allow a death in its own natural timing.