Judy Funk's Story
My story deserves some background. My parents were a fairy tale couple – the greatest parents to me and my sister and Prince Charming and Snow White to each other. As if they didn’t talk enough, my dad called my mom from work every day at 11:00 a.m. My mom read her mystery books till the early hours of the morning, and she slept late, so we always knew we were safe calling her after 11:00 a.m.
Mom and I were always best buddies. We were each other’s biggest supporter in everything we did. After my dad died, there was no doubt that Mom would continue to live in the house they had shared for their entire 40 storybook years of married life. As both my grandmothers had lived long and satisfying lives doing the same after both my grandfathers died, I saw the beauty and rationale of Mom’s decision.
I am a CPA. Over the years, the problem-solving that characterized my daily work as a CPA became an ongoing, stressful, deadline-driven ordeal. Although the work was not “life or death,” I treated it as if it were because over the years my clients had become like family. The self-imposed stress from work bled into my personal life; I felt I was no longer the enthusiastic, upbeat family member and friend that I had been years ago.
When I did retire, I promised myself I would never work again. Mom and I talked about this frequently; she would always joke, “Why don’t you just retire so we could hang out all the time?” Mom was also a hero to me as she had quit smoking, cold turkey, after smoking for 50 years. Unfortunately, because of that she lived with congestive heart failure for the last 20 years of her life. She never let that slow her down, but when it did force her to take it easy, I made sure she could do almost anything she wanted to.
We had often had “the conversation” and both visited our lawyer together to formalize our wills and our advanced directives. She often said that she hoped that when the time came, she would go like her father had in his sleep. She definitely didn’t want to linger in any kind of state in which she couldn’t take care of herself, and for sure did not want to "live" if she was not conscious. We had both been horrified by the Terry Schivo case and others like it. Although we saw each other almost every day and spoke on the phone every night, I had also taken over tradition of calling every morning at 11:00 a.m. In later years, I would wait for her to call me, but if I didn’t hear from her by 11:00, I’d call her.
Then, one Friday in August 2009, when I didn’t hear from her, I just decided to go pick her up to go for her mandatory weekly trip to the “beauty shop” and afternoon together. In over 60 years she had only rarely missed her standing weekly appointment to get her hair done by the same hairdresser; her hair was very important to her. When I got there, I immediately knew something was wrong because the front curtains were still pulled closed. I found her in bed with the night light on and a mystery book on her chest. She was still breathing but not responsive. 911 came and took her to a nearby hospital, the hospital closest to her Mt. Washington home.
My sister, my husband and I spent the next week at the hospital with mom trying to make sense of what her condition was and understand what the parade of doctors were suggesting. We were told she had had a stroke. When the neurologist came to suggest a brain biopsy, I asked why. He wanted to understand where the stroke had originated. That made no sense to me. As I stood eye to eye and told him so, I couldn’t believe I was telling a highly-skilled professional not to dare do anything to Mom. Her cardiologist happened to appear after that and backed me up. Never once did her primary care physician show up despite our calls to him.
The first visit we had from the social worker was coldly clinical and uninformative. She told us to make a list of three nursing homes. There were no aides to speak of so we did our best to keep mom clean. During the week, Mom’s body language expressed increasing tension and anxiety. Finally, my sister-in-law mentioned hospice, a term I had heard but didn’t know about. We got a physician to certify Mom’s eligibility. The social worker returned expecting our nursing home list and I said, “No nursing home. We choose hospice first.” She acted visibly put out as she said she would see who was available. Her attitude made it obvious to us that we had forced her to do more work than she had wanted to do.
Fortunately for us, the first to arrive on our sixth day in the hospital was Gilchrist. Our admission nurse helped us with understanding Mom’s condition, and the options she compassionately described made sense to us. She was the first professional who spoke frankly with us and about the comfort and coordinated care hospice could provide. The next day we arrived at the Gilchrist Towson Inpatient Unit. Our social worker there was just as compassionate. She listened to us carefully and answered all of our questions with care. She asked us to step out into the garden for about an hour so the aides could get Mom settled in. When we returned to Mom’s room, she looked visibly relaxed and calm. The aides had given her a bath and washed and neatly combed her hair. We don’t know if she knew she had effectively “gone to the beauty shop,” but we were exceptionally pleased because her hair had been so important to her.
Mom lived for seven more days with us at her side in the beautiful surroundings of Gilchrist. The Nurse Practitioner told us that the last sense “to go” is hearing and she encouraged us to continue to interact with Mom. Talking to Mom about our many wonderful summer vacations as a family, my sister and I joked with her that Gilchrist was as nice as many of the best bed and breakfasts we stayed at together. Mom died comfortably, and we all had the support of the entire Gilchrist team.
When I reflect on the experience, I think hospice and Gilchrist were the best things that could have come our way. My sister and I were always close, but the deepening bond that those days with Mom reinforced at Gilchrist was incredibly profound. Knowing that we allowed Mom to spend her final days the way she would have chosen continues to give us comfort and allows us to look back on and celebrate her life with joy.
Since my experience with Mom at Gilchrist, I followed through on my discussions with Mom about changing my life. I immediately wanted to volunteer at Gilchrist. My motivation for volunteering at Gilchrist was to pay back the organization for how wonderfully and compassionately my family, my mom and I were treated while she was at the TIPU, and because I had become a fervent hospice and palliative care supporter. I was told I needed to wait the thirteen months of the bereavement period. As a CPA, I had office experience and knew a not-for-profit organization could always use administrative help. When I insistently told the Volunteer Manager that I had skills Gilchrist just couldn’t refuse, she gave in.
As it turns out, volunteering at Gilchrist represents the surprisingly most rewarding culmination of my professional career. It is the best job I never had. At Gilchrist, my administrative skills allowed me to offer assistance wherever it was needed, starting by helping out in the Volunteer office, a bit in the Finance department and then settling in with the Quality department. I was able to use my favorite accounting skills, my computer literacy and my abilities with Excel software to help in areas that really seemed to support the staff. I knew all too well that computers can be the bane of a worker’s existence. Just the right assistance can alleviate extraneous frustration and allow a person to do his or her job with more ease, thereby allowing him or her to be more productive. Having the computer help from a volunteer translates to saving resources which Gilchrist can use elsewhere to help patients.
My volunteer work has predominantly involved working with the Quantros patient care concern software and month-end quality reporting. This work has been a collaborative process with colleagues and leadership who are willing to share information to work toward common goals. It’s been a wonderfully rewarding experience of developing new personal relationships and renewing my enthusiasm for getting to know people. Training and working with team managers and staff on Quantros has given me the opportunity to enjoy getting to know how special those people are, knowing all the while that I am helping them do their jobs. My volunteer work fed my growing passion for palliative care and hospice, which was nurtured while my mom was in the TIPU in August of 2009. That passion was also being fueled by the negativity of the political campaign against the death panels that summer. It became so important to me that it motivated me to go back to school (I earned a master’s degree in management of aging services) so that my contribution to Gilchrist might be that much greater.
My parents brought me up to understand the mitzvah of giving. With Gilchrist, I knew ultimately that I had found the right time and place for volunteering. The sense of intrinsic heart-warming reward that goes along with giving makes my Gilchrist volunteering job the best I never had.