This I Believe

Donna - Moraga, California
Entered on February 19, 2007
Age Group: 50 - 65
Themes: carpe diem, death

I believe in savoring the present moment. I’m a hospice doctor, traveling around my county making home visits to people with days, weeks, or a few months to live. I tend to be asked the same questions by patients: “How long do I have? How am I going to die? Am I going to be in pain?” Caregivers ask me the same sort of questions, but add another: “How am I going to be able to do this?” I answer as honestly as possible. I usually end my visit with a promise: “I can’t cure you, but I will work with the hospice team and try my hardest to make you comfortable and supported. We’ll take it one day at a time.” As I leave the home, I realize what a small part I may play in this promise. My order for morphine is unlikely to bring as much comfort as the hospice volunteer giving the patient a massage, or the chaplain holding her hand and sharing a prayer, or the social worker finding someone to care for her beloved cat. But I try to instill some sense of hope with my visit, a feeling that we will take steps together, making each day as good as can be.

Hospice workers have the opportunity to observe the human condition at one of its most difficult moments. I’ve seen the randomness of sickness and health. I’ve observed how financial assets can make dying easier, but nothing is as important at the end of life as knowing that we have been loved, that our life has brought meaning to others, and that we will be remembered fondly. And I realize that the hospice team cannot make all deaths easy, that there often is not time to repair bonds that were stretched or broken in the distance past, for reasons that now seem so irrelevant.

While caring for others at the end of their lives, I have learned the importance of savoring the present moment of my own life. This doesn’t come naturally to me: I’m an impatient and driven multi-tasker, a person who plowed through medical training believing in the merits of delayed gratification. But now, when I look at that medical journal sitting on my bedside table, I ponder whether I should read this journal or perhaps call my sister or a friend, or walk the dogs with my husband, or laugh with my kids over an episode of “The Office” on TV. Lately, those journals have been stacking up.