Angels You Never Hear About

Dan was dying. His family knew he was dying. Everyone knew. But hardly anyone visited him in his home because of COVID-19.

Except of course for Wanda, his hospice nurse.

“That’s the hardest part about COVID,” said Wanda. “People dying really need loved ones to tell them it’s okay to go. But this stupid virus…”

Since the pandemic began, Wanda has been Dan’s main friend. She’s been hanging out beside him during his last days, entertaining him.

When I called Dan, Wanda was busy telling knock-knock jokes.

“Knock, knock,” said Wanda.

“Who’s there?” said Dan’s graveled voice.

“Little old lady.”

“Little old lady who?”

“Mister Dan, I had no idea you could yodel!”

Wanda says this isn’t her best comedic material, but it works in a pinch. After all, she has to remain upbeat. Other people might be able to show up for work in bad moods, but not hospice workers.

During a pandemic, hospice nurses are a lifeline to the dying. It’s hard work. Not only do they have normal duties—wound cleaning, administering meds, documenting vitals, telling knock-knock jokes—many have been going above and beyond their job descriptions.

Take Lydia, for example, in Houston. She sometimes types emails for her patients who dictate them to her. Often these are goodbye letters.

“It’s the least I can do,” said Lydia.

An international quarantine may have paused the world, but it didn’t slow anything down for hospice professionals. It couldn’t. Helping people die is part of their job.

A hospice nurse does their work with the same pride a steelworker applies a bead of weld; or a teacher explains the Battle of Gettysburg; or a feeble redheaded writer tries to turn a weak idea into a column.

Every year about 1.6 million people enter hospice care, and all you have to do is imagine how many nurses they need. There are only 3.8 million registered nurses in the U.S. today. You do the math.

“You don’t just wake up and decide to be a hospice nurse,” says one veteran. “Something drives you to it. I was in my forties when I decided to be one.”

All this got me thinking: What makes a person choose this career? How does an average individual decide to help people to the End? Especially when most average people (I’m speaking of myself here) are afraid of death.

“No one goes to nursing school to work in hospice,” says Kaylie, a longtime hospice nurse. “All my classmates wanted to deliver babies or work in the ER. I wanted to take care of old folks and give a voice to the dying.”

And Kaylie has. After working in a regular hospital for three years, her father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She watched the disease whittle away at his body and she became his advocate. It changed her.

“That’s when I decided to work for hospice,” she said. “I actually had to reschedule my first hospice-job interview because my dad was still dying. I started being a hospice nurse four weeks after he died.”

The philosophy of end-of-life medical care is simple. It’s about companionship, touch, comfort, friendship, and kindness. These nurses are trained to be tough as roofing tacks, but sweet as Almond Joys. They can do everything from play backgammon to treat a UTI.

But then along came COVID-19. The protocol changed. Nurses started suiting up in plasticized protective gear. Everything was different. It’s pretty hard to comfort someone when you’re wearing a Darth Vader costume.

“My PPE (personal protection equipment) outfit is kinda freaky,” said one nurse. “I have an N95 respirator, hair cover, eye protection, disposable gloves, face shield… It’s nuts.”

But it’s hardest on the dying. Many die without families nearby. And this is where hospice nurses shine.

Sarah, a hospice nurse in Rhode Island, says, “I recently cared for a patient in the intensive care unit, she had COVID-19, so her family couldn’t see her.”

The elderly patient was in a coma-like sleep, approaching the end. Even though the old lady was unconscious, Sarah treated her like her own mother.

“As a sign of respect,” said Sarah, “I introduced myself, told her I needed to take her blood pressure.”

Later that day, the old lady’s son called the nurse’s station and asked Sarah questions about his mother. The young man was a mess. Imagine not being seeing your mother before she breathes her last.

“He knew time was short,” said Sarah. “He asked to see her, and I told him we’d make it happen.”

Sarah donned her PPE attire—hair cover, facemask, respirator, gloves, gown, moon boots, space helmet, lasso, forcefield, cowboy hat, and light saber.

She went into the old woman’s room with a cellphone in her hand. She dialed the old lady’s son.

On the cellphone’s video screen appeared a young man and his children. Everyone was crying. The young man told stories to his mother over the phone, recalling childhood days. He told her how much he loved her.

Sarah held the phone near the old woman’s face while he talked.

“I cried, too,” said Sarah. “I just hope she understood what he was saying.”

Something inside tells me she did.

As it happens, Wanda has been doing the same thing all week with her patient, Dan. Making video calls. Until yesterday morning when she walked into Dan’s room and sensed it was getting close. A hospice nurse has a feel for this.

“I held his hand, I told him that his family loves him, even though they aren’t here. I told him I love him, too. I told him it was okay to go to heaven.”

He passed that afternoon.

And he went to the famous place where all hospice nurses come from.

47 comments

  1. Angela V Young - July 18, 2020 7:42 am

    I am a hospice nurse and this touched me too the core. During this pandemic we have become proficient as hairstylist, social work, and spiritual support. We are the only medical staff many facilities let in. It is the most exhausting, gratifying, sacred job I will ever have.

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  2. Sandi. - July 18, 2020 8:18 am

    My hat’s off to all medical personnel, especially now. Hospice nurses are at the top of the list. They all deserve a halo and a high five. The Platinum Rule can readily apply here: “Treat other people the way you would want them to treat your mother.”

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  3. J.L. McCloud - July 18, 2020 8:28 am

    Oh my…. just oh my…..,😢❤️

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  4. Lita - July 18, 2020 8:58 am

    Every word…thanks, Sean x

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  5. Lita - July 18, 2020 9:00 am

    And your name is Angela… xx

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  6. Sue Rhodus - July 18, 2020 10:43 am

    No need for comment here…you said it all..so eloquently 💕

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  7. franfluker - July 18, 2020 11:09 am

    About the ‘Angels’: thanks! Deliberately or not, your words often ring so true, they bring me to tears.
    I live near Columbus, GA where you found bicycles and road the Riverwalk. Wish I had known you were here! my knees are so bad bike riding sounds excruciating, but I would have loved to meet you and sweet, tolerant wife.

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  8. Robert M Brenner - July 18, 2020 11:11 am

    I’ve seen hospice nurses up close and personal, they are “Angels from Heaven”! There’s no doubt about that. Pure compassion and love! Thank you, Bob ❤️

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  9. Dickie Gammon - July 18, 2020 11:32 am

    Sean , I cannot tell you how much your stories affect me but in a good way . I am aimost 79 years old , a former Captain in the Army during Viet Nam and I feel I am a pretty touugh old fellow but your stories so often bring tears to my eyes . The storiies hit right in the heartt , Some remind me of bertter times but all touch me in some way . I am so glad my cousin alerted me about you and I have done the same to my family , wife and friends . I am so glad you did not stop as you considered . Keep going Sean for as long as you can , being a blessing and an inspiration to all of us that follw you .

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  10. Melanie - July 18, 2020 11:35 am

    Angels on Earth ❤️

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  11. Candace Owens - July 18, 2020 12:19 pm

    I lost my husband last year and was guided by many wonderful hospice workers. They are so incredible. The support, love, care and compassion they provide is truly a gift.

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  12. sisdoll - July 18, 2020 12:19 pm

    Your words were God sent. Bless you.

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  13. Susan A. Royal - July 18, 2020 12:23 pm

    I got to see hospice nurses up close during my nephew’s last days when he lay dying of cancer. Not only were they there for him, but they were there for his family, too. I don’t know how they do it, but they are angels.

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  14. Dean - July 18, 2020 12:29 pm

    An angel at a rehab took her time and did a FaceTime with my husband. I had not seen him in 30 days. I got to talk to him and he passed away the next day. I will never forget her

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  15. Linda Outlaw Hines - July 18, 2020 12:30 pm

    My nephew has been a hospice nurse and hospice CEO! I will admit that I understood how hospice worked and appreciate them! On December 14′ 2018, my brother Thomas got devastating news that he had cancer in his liver and it was an Endocrine Carcinoma, so it quickly spread! I was there with my brother and family! I saw the care, compassion, the difficulties of treating someone who is dying! I can remember being taught what to do by my nephew, as I had the night shift with my brother! It was overwhelming at times! My brother received the best care available and Love from his hospice team! My brother passed on January 14, 2019! Hospice workers are trully Angels!

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  16. Butch - July 18, 2020 12:32 pm

    Perfect last sentence.

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  17. Dave - July 18, 2020 12:37 pm

    Thank you, Angela. Thank you, all the Angela’s, Wanda’s, Lydia’s, Kaylies’s and Sarah’s

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  18. AnnMarie - July 18, 2020 12:41 pm

    Sean, please tell that nurse that her patient heard her son, as hearing is the last sense to go. Please stress this, Sean! People should not stand over their loved ones’ beds planning funerals, arguing, being rude to each other. HEARING is the last sense to go! Hats off to all medical personnel who talk to their patients even though they are unconscious or in coma.

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  19. Connie - July 18, 2020 1:06 pm

    We were fortunate in my mom’s last days that she was at home and Covid hadn’t happened yet. Her hospice nurses were amazing. I can’t imagine doing what they do every day, even under normal circumstances, but now they may be the last person to touch a loved one. They do it with compassion and they are so under-appreciated. Thank you for this.

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  20. Jan - July 18, 2020 1:13 pm

    Beautiful beyond words! These angels and your story about them! Thank you, Sean, and thank you to all nurses everywhere especially those who help us pass to the next life peacefully!

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  21. Linda - July 18, 2020 1:14 pm

    I enjoy all your stories but this has got to be one of the most touching one yet..♥️🙏

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  22. Phil S. - July 18, 2020 1:32 pm

    All I can think of to say to that is BEAUTIFUL!

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  23. Shirley - July 18, 2020 2:06 pm

    My husband’s hospice nurse, Lisa, was the closest angel I will have the pleasure of knowing until I’m in heaven helping to sing their praises! We loved her and best of all she loved my husband and treated him like he was her only patient.
    Thank you, Sean, for another uplifting beginning to a new day! Now, where are my tissues? 😢❤️

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  24. Jon Dragonfly - July 18, 2020 2:22 pm

    Hospice nursing is a Calling more sacred than the priesthood. God bless them all.

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  25. angie5804 - July 18, 2020 2:28 pm

    My husband died June 15th, less than two months after we found out he had stage four pancreatic cancer. We only had hospice for the last few days, not even time for a one-on-one nurse visit. But the nurse who came in (thankfully we were at home with him) minutes after he passed was the most compassionate and steady presence we could have asked for. I agree, Sean, God blesses us with these hospice nurses.

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  26. Lyla - July 18, 2020 2:36 pm

    My eyes are leaking. Hospice nurses are saints!

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  27. Bernadette Wyckoff - July 18, 2020 3:08 pm

    My dear husband Wayne went to be with Jesus seven years ago yesterday July 17, 2013. God blessed us with Hospice nurses that cared for us beyond measure…they love the family too. We also were blessed to be at home. God bless the angel that sent a piece of her heart along with all of my heart to Heaven with Wayne that day. We need their love and dedication more than ever now. I pray for Hospice Angels everyday.

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  28. Christina - July 18, 2020 3:47 pm

    God bless all these angels!

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  29. Cheryl - July 18, 2020 4:09 pm

    Sean – I lost my mother in January of this year. Without the hospice people – nurses, aides and chaplain – I don’t know how her family could have lived through it. They are, indeed, angels. If anyone knows a hospice worker, please tell them how valuable they are. My mother loved each of them and I truly believe they loved her.

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  30. Jess Rawls - July 18, 2020 4:10 pm

    Dang it, Sean, I was hanging in there pretty good until I read that last sentence. That got to me. Good column on a timely subject. Yesterday I received news that one of my dear, dear friends passed because of Covid-19. That was a bolt out of the blue. I was shocked and sadden by that news. I hope someone develops an effective vaccine soon, but it’ll be too late for thousands of people that will die from the virus.

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  31. Linda Moon - July 18, 2020 4:16 pm

    Is the simplicity of end-of-life care really the same as what we want in the living of LIFE: companionship, touch, comfort, friendship, and kindness? I think so. But the ending of LIFE has more challenges than most of us are equipped to manage at the end. Hospice Nurses are Angels. The rest of us aspire to be like them, both for the living and the dying. I sure do. Thank you, Columnist, for telling us the stories of these LIFELINES.

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  32. Ann - July 18, 2020 4:54 pm

    This is so heartwarming and beautifully written….true earth angels

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  33. Tom - July 18, 2020 5:07 pm

    Hospice nurses are superstars in a league of their own

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  34. Rebecca J Cotney - July 18, 2020 5:14 pm

    Amen.

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  35. Patricia Hodges - July 18, 2020 5:33 pm

    Sean, thank you so much for your column today. My husband Richard and I are in Saltillo, Mississippi visiting the senior living my father-in-law is in. They are allowing us in the back door. He will be 100 on the 7th of August. Hospice care is visiting several times a week, we love the care they give him. Thank you for honoring Hospice nurse. Patricia Hodges.

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  36. Vanessa - July 18, 2020 8:17 pm

    Sean — you are an angel as well. I’ve been reading your lovely writing, daily, for the past two-plus years and sharing it with my friends. Your writing has entertained me and touched me deeply, but especially so in the past four months. Just when I think you could not get any better, you do it again! thank you and may God bless you!

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  37. catladymac - July 18, 2020 8:40 pm

    My best friend from third grade on worked as a nurse for 40 years. Then she retired and became a hospice volunteer.

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  38. MAM - July 18, 2020 10:51 pm

    Hospice care and the providers of it definitely have a calling. I couldn’t do it, but I was very thankful for the one who took care of my mom during her last days. The very last day, Mom seemed to have brightened up, so I had hope for potential recovery, but the hospice nurse knew they were my last moments with my Mom, as she silently crept away without my even having a chance to say thanks. You, hospice nurses and volunteers, are blessed and a blessing to families and patients in their time of need and grief. Thank you!

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  39. RGCox - July 18, 2020 11:37 pm

    Our mother just passed in May at hospice. While her nursing home staff was very compassionate the hospice staff was beyond. Their honesty and guidance until the end helped both the dying and the living. Even the nursing home staff who visited commented.

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  40. Carla Susan Grahl - July 19, 2020 1:10 am

    My Stan’s Hospice nurse Julie was the best advocate for both Stan and I in his final days on this earth. He died in my arms peacefully with our dog Josie in his bed with us at our home. I called Julie after spending some quiet time together. She came and made all the final calls….Stan joined an elite group of angels in Heaven last 12-19. Julie still keeping in touch with me. Julie and all hospice nurses are from Heaven!

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  41. Teresa R - July 19, 2020 1:35 am

    As a retired Hospice RN, I thank you for Your column. It was the hardest and most rewarding moments of my life.

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  42. Helen De Prima - July 19, 2020 2:40 am

    I never worked exclusively as a hospice nurse, but at a Visiting Nurse in rural Colorado, I held the hands of patients who chose to die at home. I hope I made it easier for them and their families.

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  43. Ann - July 19, 2020 5:23 am

    Thank you Sean, for writing about our blessed profession. As a hospice nurse myself, all of us have felt called to this specialty ,much like a minister. It’s not that we love death, it’s that we all think everyone needs to have their humanity recognized and honor them on their homegoing. This pandemic has separated so many families at critical, crucial times. Thank God for allowing us to be there to hold our patients hand, pray for them, if requested and in a very small way, remind them that they are loved. Thank you for your words and your thoughts.

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  44. Patricia Gibson - July 19, 2020 2:06 pm

    God bless them all🙏

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  45. Robin - July 20, 2020 1:35 pm

    As a retired hospice nurse, this one touched me to my core! I miss my work and am so thankful for those that continue this noble profession. Thanks for recognizing them in this way.

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  46. Heather - July 21, 2020 10:36 pm

    Sean, I am sitting bedside with my aunt who is in her final days at a hospice house. She is surrounded by angels in PPE. Thank you for today’s column, Pretty sure there is no more noble job than that of a hospice nurse. God’s hands and feet…

    Reply
  47. Aisha Sawyer - July 25, 2020 4:42 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing the experiences of these nurses. I am a hospice nurse AID and this puts my job into words. I love my job and came to work in hospice 8months after losing my daughter and having a less than great experience with a hospice. Experience and perspective and compassion are what make a hospice employee. Thank you again for sharing.

    Reply

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