One spring Friday morning, I went on patient rounds with Sarah Creed, a nurse with the hospice service that my hospital system operated. I didn't know much about hospice. I knew that it specialized in providing "comfort care" for the terminally ill, sometimes in special facilities, though nowadays usually at home. I knew that, in order for a patient of mine to be eligible, I had to write a note certifying that he or she had a life expectancy of less than six months. I also knew few patients who had chosen it, except in their very last few days, because they had to sign a form indicating that they understood their disease was terminal and that they were giving up on medical care that aimed to stop it. The picture I had of hospice was of a morphine drip. It was not of this brown-haired and blue-eyed former ICU nurse with a stethoscope, knocking on Lee Cox's door on a quiet morning in Boston's Mattapan neighborhood.
"Hi, Lee," Creed said when she entered the house.
"Hi, Sarah," Cox said. She was seventy-two years old. She'd had several years of declining health due to congestive heart failure from a heart attack and pulmonary fibrosis, a progressive and irreversible lung disease. Doctors tried slowing the disease with steroids, but they didn't work. She had cycled in and out of the hospital, each time in worse shape. Ultimately, she accepted hospice care and moved in with her niece for support. She was dependent on oxygen and unable to do the most ordinary tasks. Just answering the door, with her thirty-foot length of oxygen tubing trailing after her, had left her winded. She stood resting for a moment, her lips pursed and her chest heaving.
Creed took Cox's arm gently as we walked to the kitchen to sit down, asking her how she had been doing. Then she asked a series of questions, targeting issues that tend to arise in patients with terminal illness. Did Cox have pain? How was her appetite, thirst, sleeping? Any trouble with confusion, anxiety, or restlessness? Had her shortness of breath grown worse? Was there chest pain or heart palpitations? Abdominal discomfort? Trouble with constipation or urination or walking?
She did have some new troubles. When she walked from the bedroom to the bathroom, she said, it now took at least five minutes to catch her breath, and that frightened her. She was also getting chest pain. Creed pulled a blood pressure cuff from her medical bag. Cox's blood pressure was acceptable, but her heart rate was high. Creed listened to her heart, which had a normal rhythm, and to her lungs, hearing the fine crackles of her pulmonary fibrosis but also a new wheeze. Her ankles were swollen with fluid, and when Creed asked for her pillbox she saw that Cox was out of her heart medication. She asked to see Cox's oxygen equipment. The liquid-oxygen cylinder at the foot of her neatly made bed was filled and working properly. The nebulizer equipment for her inhaler treatments, however, was broken.
Given the lack of heart medication and inhaler treatments, it was no wonder that she had worsened. Creed called Cox's pharmacy. They said that her refills had been waiting all along. So Creed contacted Cox's niece to pick up the medicine when she came home from work. She also called the nebulizer supplier for same-day emergency service.
She then chatted with Cox in the kitchen for a few minutes. Cox's spirits were low. Creed took her hand. Everything was going to be all right, she said. She reminded her about the good days she'd had—the previous weekend, for example, when she'd been able to go out with her portable oxygen cylinder to shop with her niece and get her hair colored.
I asked Cox about her earlier life. She had made radios in a Boston factory. She and her husband had had two children and several grandchildren.
When I asked her why she had chosen hospice care, she looked downcast. "The lung doctor and heart doctor said they couldn't help me anymore," she said. Creed glared at me. My questions had made Cox sad again.
She told a story of the trials of aging overlain with the trials of having an illness that she knew would someday claim her. "It's good to have my niece and her husband helping to watch me every day," she said. "But it's not my home. I feel like I'm in the way." Multigenerational living fell short of its nostalgic image, again.
Creed gave her a hug and one last reminder before we left. "What do you do if you have chest pain that doesn't go away?" she asked.
"Take a nitro," Cox said, referring to the nitroglycerin pill that she can slip under her tongue.
"Where's the number?"
She pointed to the twenty-four-hour hospice call number that was taped beside her phone.
Outside, I confessed that I was confused by what Creed was doing. A lot of it seemed to be about extending Cox's life. Wasn't the goal of hospice to let nature take its course?
"That's not the goal," Creed said. The difference between standard medical care and hospice is not the difference between treating and doing nothing, she explained. The difference was in the priorities. In ordinary medicine, the goal is to extend life. We'll sacrifice the quality of your existence now—by performing surgery, providing chemotherapy, putting you in intensive care—for the chance of gaining time later. Hospice deploys nurses, doctors, chaplains, and social workers to help people with a fatal illness have the fullest possible lives right now—much as nursing home reformers deploy staff to help people with severe disabilities.
In terminal illness that means focusing on objectives like freedom from pain and discomfort, or maintaining mental awareness for as long as feasible, or getting out with family once in a while—not on whether Cox's life would be longer or shorter. Nonetheless, when she was transferred to hospice care, her doctors thought that she wouldn't live much longer than a few weeks. With the supportive hospice therapy she received, she had already lived for a year.
Hospice is not an easy choice for a person to make. A hospice nurse enters people's lives at a strange moment—when they have understood that they have a fatal illness but not necessarily acknowledged that they are dying. "I'd say only about a quarter have accepted their fate when they come into hospice," Creed said.
When she first encounters her patients, many feel that their doctors have simply abandoned them. "Ninety-nine percent understand they're dying, but one hundred percent hope they're not," she told me. "They still want to beat their disease."
The initial visit is always tricky, but she has found ways to smooth things over. "A nurse has five seconds to make a patient like you and trust you. It's in the whole way you present yourself. I do not come in saying, 'I'm so sorry.' Instead, it's: 'I'm the hospice nurse, and here's what I have to offer you to make your life better. And I know we don't have a lot of time to waste.' "
That was how she started with Dave Galloway, whom we visited after leaving Lee Cox's home. He was forty-two years old. He and his wife, Sharon, were both Boston firefighters. They had a three-year-old daughter. He had pancreatic cancer, which had spread; his upper abdomen was now solid with tumor. During the past few months, the pain had often become unbearable, and he was admitted to the hospital several times for pain crises. At his most recent admission, about a week earlier, it was found that the tumor had perforated his intestine. There wasn't even a temporary fix for this problem. The medical team started him on intravenous nutrition and offered him a choice between going to the intensive care unit and going home with hospice. He chose to go home.
“I wish we’d gotten involved sooner,” Creed told me.