Sam and I did hospice over the weekend and I came away with a gnawing and unsettled feeling in my gut. Not the sadness of someone making peace with death but something more than that. With the kinds of technology we use all the time, I wondered, have we lost a bit of our humanity through the sphere of anonymous modern day life?
We are given a rare opportunity to visit with patients and we probably do a whole lot more people watching than even we realize. The more visits I make, the more I really observe people and this weekend was no exception. We met all kinds, the sick and well, from all walks of life and experience and this Saturday was no exception. Observing them provides a window into their world.
While making rounds, I came across a patient who was conscious and chatting with visitors in his room. That’s somewhat rare since most hospice patients are barely awake. I asked if they’d like a visit with Pet Therapy and both he and his wife enthusiastically said, “Oh yes, definitely–we love dogs!” They introduced me to their daughter and granddaughter who were in a corner. We made with the pleasantries of greeting and they commented on how handsome Sam was and how glad they were to see him. Then a few moments later, the daughter and granddaughter resumed whatever they were previously doing on their cell phones. O-kay, I thought. I know we’ve all seen people in restaurants texting to each other or to mutual friends and while kind of pathetic, it’s just not surprising anymore. Yet, when someone is in hospice, they don’t have a whole lot of time left. Their time is short, it’s precious and you’d think visitors (especially family members) would be more inclined to actually spend it visiting rather than being plugged in to some mobile device. The patient and his wife were insistent that we come in and told stories about dogs they’d owned, or knew…you know, the usual small talk. They were warm and gracious, the kind of people you admire for being genuine, humble, down to earth and Sam was particularly drawn to the wife. Whenever we visit patients, I know this goof-ball dog will first go to the person who needs him the most. He has a knack for sorting out people’s energy. He’ll visit with them all eventually, but he always goes to the one who needs him the most…first. He hardly sniffed at the two feverishly typing away on their cell phones. He instinctively knew they were totally disengaged; it just took me a while to realize that. I kept thinking surely they’ll make some comment or recall a happier shared time. But they didn’t. Sam couldn’t get enough of the wife though. His tail wagged furiously and he tossed his head proudly. We laughed because his tail looks like a Swiffer wand dusting away. The same vigorous tail wagging was shown with the patient as Sam got close enough to get petted by him. He smiled and spoke softly to Sam who watched him intently, hanging on to his every word. They both commented on how soulful his eyes were, yet the daughter and granddaughter were MIA in the moment and never so much as looked up. It mattered not to Sam, he completely believed everything the patient said. But here was a man whose family didn’t take into account he would soon not be with them. I felt so badly for him and his wife. Maybe they were used to it, just like I’m used to seeing people texting at restaurants over a meal. I certainly didn’t have any insight into the family’s dynamics, but it seemed as though this is somehow accepted as normal human response. How could we let this happen and is there anything we can do to stem this cavalier approach to being human. When I saw the patient getting tired, we bid our goodbyes but as I walked back down the hallway toward the nurses station, I couldn’t shake those feelings of loss–the loss of our humanness toward one another in general. It especially made me realize the importance of solid eye contact, the power of physical touch in a handshake or hug, of making the people we visit the only thing in the world that matters for as long as they want to share their time with us. I was melancholy by the inescapable lack of being as in some people not being truly involved when a patient or other loved one probably needs it the most. Do humans have a duty to really be there in the moment…at the end?
The pet therapist’s job is to provide a measure of comfort and peace. We all know what a difference it makes for the sick to receive a visit from these special creatures, how a few moments can reduce blood pressure, and perhaps even speed up the healing process and a patient’s ability to feel better even for just a few minutes. Certainly if I’ve learned anything, it’s that we all need to treat one another better, especially when we’re sick or dying. To be loved, to be genuine and engaged, especially at the end when we don’t know what’s on the other side. We need to keep our humanity intact and not let a text or email interfere with those connections.
So be nice to each other, ok? Stay engaged and be there when someone needs that comfort. We will all need it at some point, especially in the end. In the meantime, don’t you want to stay in practice? <3
Monika & Sam