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photo by Tom Rankin, Director of the Center for Documentary Studies

The Last Days of Kitty Shenay

part 1 2 3 4 5 6

Layering Back Who We Are

"You know," Kitty says to Roland during one of his visits in February, "a lot of times you go through life, you get to this point and you think, well, why didn't I do so and so different?"

Any such misgivings have been eased, Kitty says, by the stream of letters sent by friends when they heard about her terminal illness. Those letters "have just put me so right with a lot of things through life." Friends wrote to praise her for her charity work, and with thanks for helping them get into the hair-cutting business.

"And just the other day," she tells Roland, choking up with emotion, "I had one [letter] from a friend, telling me about dying and what I had left behind."

"Sometimes we never know what we left behind," Roland says.

Kitty nods. "It was good."

"It's a blessing."

"Yeah."

This exchange between nurse and patient is the kind of moment that many hospice workers and advocates relish, a moment when "the distinction between patient and provider dissolves," Roland says, and what's left is a moment shared between two human beings.

Roland Siverson has been a hospice nurse for six years. "It's such an intimate process that we become almost a part of the family sometimes, for a very short period of time and during a crisis."

Before switching to hospice, Roland worked as a nurse in a V.A. hospital. He says it was sad to watch old men die in hospital beds, sometimes alone, with nurses too busy to do much more than give medicines.

"A hospital is not a great place to die."

As a hospice nurse, Roland visits his patients in their homes, typically sitting for an hour or more and acting as friend, counselor, even minister. From its beginnings, hospice has emphasized holistic care, care for the whole person, body, mind, and spirit.

"It's a privilege for us," says Roland. "Engaging in [these] kind of delicate, beautiful relationships, conversations. Just sort of layering back who we are as individuals and how we meet the challenges that face us."

"I don't want the time to come that I don't have any control over myself," Kitty admits to Roland one day.

"Right."

"That's when I want to go."

"You're pretty tough," Roland says with an admiring smile.

"I hope so," Kitty says. "I hope so when we get there."

"You're quite a woman."

"Thank you, Roland. Thank you so much. You've been so good to me."


Next - A Quick Decline