Life and death

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Wednesday, August 7th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Patients in a special wing of the old hospital in Winchester, Virginia, have a bell on their night stands. 

Hitting it…

AUDIO: [Bell rings]

…sends a nurse running. But not to save a life. The nurse arrives to help a hospice patient die well.

World Radio’s Les Sillars recently visited this medical facility balanced on the line between life and death. 

It’s a place few people want to go but where life’s biggest questions suddenly become a lot clearer.

MONTGOMERY: Well we’ve had young moms and dads and young kids, and, you know, when they were there, they died…

LES SILLARS, REPORTER: Julie Guz Montgomery has been a nurse at the Blue Ridge Hospice for 14 years. She has curly brown hair and a compassionate spirit. 

MONTGOMERY: You know as a nurse, we’re the mother figure, so they can sit there and hug us and hold us and cry and cry…

Guz Montgomery is surrounded by death, but she loves her job.

MONTGOMERY: This is where He’s planned me for. It’s not for everybody, not everybody can do it. We’ve had Christians come in here and say: “Oh my goodness, I can’t do this…

She intended to do overseas medical ministry, but after 20 years as an ICU nurse, she ended up at hospice. It’s her mission field.

MONTGOMERY:I’ve been able to witness to more people and talk them through the plan of salvation than, anywhere, so …

Some people, she says, put off entering hospice until they’re almost dead. Hospice is where you go to die, so why rush into it? Yet most of us will, eventually, face that choice. Guz Montgomery wishes people knew… 

MONTGOMERY: … that we’re not just there to give’em a big dose of medicine, and kill’em … some family members  will say “I didn’t want them in here because you guys just…”

In hospice the focus is on dignity and…

MONTGOMERY: Comfort. Comfort, and making them comfortable where their journey takes them.

CREVELING: My father was ill…

Bill Creveling Sr. was one of Guz Montgomery’s patients. Today Bill Creveling Jr. is dropping off some flowers after his father’s memorial service.

His father was a fighter, he says, and for 18 days refused to give up. Then a nurse said to Creveling Jr., his dad couldn’t let go until he heard five things from him.

CREVELING: She said, he can hear every word you say. So I went in and put my hand on his shoulder. And I said, number one, Dad, I love you. Number two, Dad please forgive me. Dad, number three, I forgive you … Dad, thank you, thank you for my life. And finally, Dad I love you. Good-bye. And then I walked out of the room, and he died an hour and a half later.

Creveling Sr. was an atheist most of his life, but when he got to hospice…

CREVELING: He found himself a little more receptive and open-minded toward that … 

He apparently prayed with one of the nurses.

CREVELING: If he did, I’m happy for that. 

Modern medical techniques mean very few patients die in physical pain. But dying from disease is painful in other ways, for everybody. The process begins with withdrawal from friends and even family, and there’s a lot of napping.

Soon they lose interest in food and drink. Families find this hard to watch but the patients aren’t starving or dehydrated. It’s just part of the process.

In the last days they often become disoriented. Their blood pressure falls, their pulse rate rises, and their extremities turn bluish. In the last few hours they often become restless or agitated. Their eyes turn glassy.

MONTGOMERY: The big difference will be their change in breathing. They’ll breathe normally, then pretty soon muscles start shutting down, so they’ll use their stomach muscles and it’ll look real gulpy, so they’re kind of doing this…

Guz Montgomery heaves her shoulders like she’s trying to open up her lungs. Then maybe a couple of big breaths, and then … 

AUDIO: [Bell rings]

Delaying hospice doesn’t necessarily keep death at arm’s length. Ironically, hospice patients often live longer than if they had undergone aggressive and painful treatment. They’re certainly more comfortable. It seems that when they face death directly, it’s easier to deal with.

As one of Blue Ridge’s pamphlets puts it, “Fear and unfinished business are two big factors.” Guz Montgomery recalls one lady near death…

MONTGOMERY: Her body was giving up and she was so scared, you could see her, doing this, Noooo! and talking to whoever and whatever. We take those opportunities to give those patients peace…

Believers should understand death’s ambivalence. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord—but even Christians can struggle. Some start with denial and anger, Guz Montgomery says.

MONTGOMERY: Then you usually have bargaining. OK, if I eat the right stuff, you know, it will get better, or say you’re the family member, OK we’re going to get medication, then Lord you’ll heal her through the doctors, you know.

Some never get to the stage of acceptance.

Of course, sometimes people should fight for life. Entering hospice can be a failure of faith.

But it can also be an expression of faith. That’s because there is a time to be born and a time to die, as Ecclesiastes puts it. Our culture often lacks the wisdom to tell one from the other. Hospice care forces the question: “What does it mean to die well?” And when that becomes clear, it also helps people know how to live well.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Les Sillars.

(Photo/Creative Commons)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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2 comments on Life and death

  1. Barbara Findley says:

    Thank you, Les, for this poignant story. It was so well done! It brought tears to my eyes. Looking forward to sharing it with friends and family.

  2. Richard Earl Lumpp says:

    Eloquent…again. Thanks Len for giving us the unvarnished truth.

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