By Craig Dresang, CEO, Yolo Hospice
Originally published in The Davis Enterprise
Perceptions about people can be powerful. They can also be powerfully wrong.
Perceptions have, from time to time, made me into a party killer. If I am at a dinner party or social gathering and tell people that I work for hospice, they will often give me a sad look and discreetly disappear. Sometimes they will say, “I’m so sorry. That must be very hard.”
Often, the perception is that those of us who work in hospice are focused on helping people to die, but the reality is that we help people to live fully and with meaning until they die. What we do every day is actually a joy and a labor of love. Believe it or not, there are often opportunities for us to help patients and families embrace more of what they love too.
Perceptions are often about people who find themselves in a certain set of circumstances. It can become quite uncomfortable if we come face-to-face with the idea that we could be randomly handed the same set of circumstances as anyone else. While this truism can be terrifying it can also serve as a reality check for how much we are all the same.
A potent lesson about circumstances came to me when I was working side-by-side with a Catholic religious order called the Alexian Brothers. It happened at a place called Bonaventure House.
Leading up to my career in hospice, I spent some time working as an administrator in this unique transitional housing facility in Chicago. Residents had to meet three criteria to get into the program. They had to be homeless, have a diagnosis of HIV/AIDS, and they had to be struggling with substance abuse. The latter frequently came in the form of alcohol, heroin, and crystal meth. In some ways the program was in equal measures hospice, treatment facility, and supportive housing.
By design, my office was one of the only staff spaces at the end of a corridor lined with 16 resident rooms. This helped me to quickly become part of the day-to-day lives of the people who lived there.
It took me several weeks of sharing meals, participating in resident support groups, helping to mediate conflicts, and engaging in routine conversations before I learned that many of the residents were former investment bankers, successful architects, religious leaders, and professors whose lives started spinning out of control. There were prostitutes and drug dealers too. The more I learned about each person and their life stories the more aware I became that the only difference between me and the residents of Bonaventure House, who lost everything including home and health, were an unusual set of circumstances. Some circumstances were out of their control. Others were not. Several residents came from families who spent generations in poverty or on welfare. Others had pasts that were marked by unspeakable tragedy including rape, devastating loss, abuse, and abandonment.
Up until that point I had spent the lion’s share of my career in fundraising and developing relationships with philanthropists. After many years of doing so, I had landed on a conclusion similar, but different, to the one I gleaned from Bonaventure House. It became clear that sometimes the only difference between me, or any of us, and the uber-successful and billionaires are an unusual set of circumstances. Some people have been fortunate enough to have lives shaped by generations of wealth, family ties to the most prestigious schools, and parental connections that helped chart a course for their futures. They were not smarter or more intelligent than the residents of Bonaventure House. They were not harder workers or even better people. They were simply the recipients of a different set of circumstances.
Yolo Hospice patients come from a diversity of circumstances too: a 32-year-old mother with brain cancer, a 55-year-old with progressive Alzheimer’s, a 20-year-old who has barely experienced life, and a 99-year-old who is desperately lonely and longing for her deceased husband of 70 years. Circumstances that no one chose and no one can control.
What I have noticed is that people can experience joy, or not, regardless of their circumstances. While some folks may perceive the eventuality of hospice patients as sad, their lives are still fertile ground for possibility, meaning, and shared moments of love. An old family friend once said to me, “Listen kiddo, there are no guarantees in the next few hours or days. You don’t know if you will be here tomorrow or next year. A lot of life is an accident . . . unplanned. So if there is something you want to do, do it now.”
Bill Gates senior, who today is in his 90s and still serving on corporate and foundation boards, wrote a book called “Showing Up For Life” when he was in his 80s. In it he says, “I believe in the combined power of men and women who show up for the people they love and the causes they believe in. I’ve seen the power of public will to take on and surmount great challenges and I believe our society works better when people think less about me and mine and more about us and ours.”
Every day I have the privilege of seeing the many ways our staff and volunteers show up for life and gently bring that “do it now” energy into the lives of our patients and families. They are not limited by perception or circumstance. For them, hospice is more than a job. It is a calling and a human response to an inner voice.