For years, Kay Kuske of New England, ND, volunteered for the hospice program at CHI Health at Home in Dickinson, faithfully organizing, writing, and sending cards to the loved ones of patients who had lived their final days under hospice care.
“If she ever went on vacation, Mom had all the cards ready ahead of time and would have me mail them. They’d be organized with notes telling me when each should be mailed,” daughter Julie Opdahl recalls.
Kay faced many health issues in her later years. A kidney transplant at the age of 38 and decades of medication took a toll on her organs. In the fall of 2015, after several trips to the hospital, her doctors told her there was nothing more they could do to stop her congestive heart failure. It was a terminal diagnosis.
A woman of strong faith who loved her family, friends, and small-town USA lifestyle, Kay wanted nothing more than to be in the comfort of her own home for whatever came next.
Kay and her children looked into their options. They knew they needed help. Julie states, “She didn’t want to go to a nursing home, or to die in the hospital. We just knew hospice was what we needed. That was what Mom wanted.”
Hospice provides healthcare, education and support to terminally ill patients, their families and caregivers. The program advocates home care with pain management and symptom control, which enables the patient to remain alert, pain free and as active as they can within the limitations of their disease.
Julie explains, “Shortly after we started the hospice program with Mom, I would often hear ‘Isn’t hospice just a way to help her die?’ and I said, ‘No, it’s helping her live her life until she dies.’”
Kay’s faced good days and harder days, but Julie feels the decision to utilize hospice helped improve the quality and quantity of Kay’s final months.
Kay’s hospice nurse, Astro, came to her aid whenever he was needed and became a trusted part of her care, as well as a friend. And Julie’s job at New England Public Schools, just a block from Kay’s house, allowed Julie to reach Kay quickly if she needed help.
An extra-long oxygen tube, acquired with the help of Medquest Home Medical Equipment (now Great Plains Rehabilitation Services), helped her get outside and tend to small projects in her yard. A portable oxygen tank helped Kay attend her beloved Women’s Club meetings for several months. Kay’s children set up a quilting station in her laundry room that helped her to keep working on quilting projects, a lifelong passion.
For a few months, she even continued writing cards for the hospice program while being a patient herself.
“She loved it,” Julie explains. “A lot of activities became too hard for her, but with the card-writing, she always said, ‘It’s something I can do.’”
Kay was a hospice patient for more than 13 months before she passed, living much longer than the 1-2 months her doctors predicted she had left to live.
Wendy McCarty, Director of CHI Health at Home, remembers Kay fondly and feels she embodied the idea of “dying well.”
“There’s a misconception – hospice is not for just the very last few days of life,” Wendy explains.
“A lot of people with a terminal diagnosis feel they are not sick enough for hospice. What they don’t realize is that there is a gradual decline in health, and hospice can be there to help when someone needs assistance before those last days. We can improve quality of life and help educate and prepare the patient – and their families – when a patient contacts hospice earlier on.”
When Kay died in November of 2016, the time on hospice and the support of Astro and other staff helped the family be ready. The emotional strain could be deep, but the stress of how to handle the day-to-day issues was manageable thanks to the family they formed with the hospice team, which included nursing, social work, chaplain, and hospice aide support.
Julie remembers, “I knew nothing about hospice. It was all new to us. But there was nothing hard about the paperwork or the process – the staff helped with everything, from day 1 to the end. I can’t say enough good things about the experience.”
To make a gift to help keep the Hospice program in Dickinson operating, please see remittance envelope in center of this publication or call 701-456-4746.
To visit CHI Health at Home's website, go here: http://www.chihealthconnectathome.com/
Story by Stephanie Fong. Submitted photos.