By Craig Dresang, Executive Director, Yolo Hospice
One of the gifts my career in healthcare and higher education has brought me over the span of nearly 30 years has been the opportunity to meet and engage with scores of extremely accomplished people: Dr. Atul Gawande, Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop. And though I have retained jewels of wisdom and insight from each person, the most profound lessons, for me, have come directly from my role as a hospice volunteer.
Now as the executive director of Yolo Hospice, I continue to be changed by the colorful lives, stories and perspectives of patients. Their experiences and circumstances are as varied as the human race . . . holocaust survivors, Vietnam Veterans, poets, bankers, check-out clerks, and stay-at-home moms. One time, I became especially attached to a patient by the name of Harry Root. At the time, Harry was 86. His partner of 40 years had been cared for by hospice 20 years earlier. They first met behind enemy lines during World War II and for years they lived their lives together in secret. During the course of my visits, I learned that Harry was the man who first discovered Buchenwald, one of the largest Nazi concentration camps on German soil. As a result, Harry became the man who would one day lead the riderless horse for General George Patton’s funeral in Washington DC. In his own words, Harry described himself as growing up dirt poor and unpolished. Even so, he said, “If you turn adversity into ambition the possibilities are limitless.”
And that’s exactly what Harry did. When he returned from the war, he took a job in the mail room at Marshall Fields, went to school at night, and eventually received an MBA from the University of Chicago. Over time, his ambition landed him a seat as an officer and senior vice president at Marshall Fields. In his final five months, Harry once again turned his adversities and fears into opportunities to express love to friends and family, show support for causes that were important to him, and share his stories and lessons with those who were fortunate enough to be in his circle. I’m grateful to Harry for showing me that it’s possible to face the biggest of challenges with graceful courage, refreshing candor, and generosity of spirit.
Some hospice stories have more difficult lessons. We recently cared for a woman I’ll call Lida, who was turned away by other hospice programs because she was not a U.S. citizen and had neither health coverage nor financial resources. She moved to California from Africa to live with her son, but shortly after her arrival, her son was killed in an accident. Still grieving this unexpected loss, Lida packed up her few belongings and moved into her daughter’s house in Nevada. Just months after moving in, Lida’s daughter was diagnosed with stage four cancer. Unfortunately, by the time her disease was discovered it was too late for treatments to be effective. Lida, bracing herself for even more loss, didn’t know that her daughter would die in three short months. Her last move was back to the Davis area and into her only remaining child’s apartment. Lida’s grief was still fresh when she received more bad news from her own doctor. She had only weeks left to live. At a time when she had nowhere to turn and no resources to offer, the team at Yolo Hospice welcomed her into our circle of care with compassion, dignity, and respect.
Both stories bring light to the reality that Yolo Hospice does not care for patients — we care for people. People who have lives that are steeped in meaning. Each patient is someone’s daughter or son. Each individual has shared love and light and has been the recipient of the same. Each person matters and will continue to matter when we can’t see or touch them anymore. They have invited us to help them transition to the next unseen adventure, and we consider it the greatest honor and privilege to be part of that journey.