ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) - The 17-year-old boy was agitated by the sound of gurgling as he strained to breathe, so Lisa Siminski reached for an iPod to play some music that might distract and comfort him.
Before she could press play, however, someone began to sing, and others soon added their voices. It seemed everyone at the Kimbilio Hospice in Kenya - the aides, the cooks, the cleaners and even the other patients - dropped what they were doing to join in song for the boy in the final moments of his life.
Siminski, a nurse practitioner who lives in Zionsville, and two of her colleagues at Lehigh Valley Hospice traveled to Kenya last month hoping to help and, perhaps, impart some of their knowledge.
They came back talking about how much they had learned.
“Medication isn’t always the answer,” said nurse Louise Hunter of Allentown. And no medication would have been as effective as that chorus of voices, agreed Lehigh Valley Hospice Director Jeannie Vogt of Emmaus, who accompanied Siminski and Hunter on the trip.
The boy was calmed. Siminski held his hand, and as he took his final breaths, his cheeks were streaked with tears.
As hospice workers, Siminski, Hunter and Vogt assist people for whom further medical treatment is not a realistic option. They help people manage their pain and prepare for the inevitable.
It’s more than a job for them; it’s a calling. How else to explain why they would use their vacation time to travel on their own dime halfway around the world to do what they do back home at work?
“Hospice is in my blood,” explained Hunter, who in addition to serving the Lehigh Valley’s adult population specializes in pediatric hospice. “It’s an honor to be with someone when he dies.”
But too often, the three lamented during a recent lunch break, the expectations and demands of modern medicine get in the way.
There’s the notion so pervasive in the West that for every ailment there must be some pill or other kind of medication to treat it.
There’s the endless paperwork which, to justify hospice coverage and ward off liability, must establish a life expectancy of under six months and meticulously document a persistent decline in health.
And then there’s the relentless pace dictated by laptop computers and cell phones - tools that increase hospice workers’ efficiency by enabling them to move from case to case, even after a death, with hardly any time to reflect or converse with colleagues.
But in Kenya, the three Lehigh Valley Hospice workers were free of that burden and their cell phones were silent, allowing them to spend time and make meaningful connections with the patients. They were able to focus on the caring. “It was very liberating,” Siminski said.
She was the one who came up with the idea of an African hospice vacation. She’d done missionary work in Latin America and making use of her expertise in Africa was, the 35-year-old mother of four said, on her “bucket list.” So she contacted a Kenyan hospice official who suggested she visit Kimbilio.
Kimbilio is a 24-bed facility in the village of Kipkaren, about six hours from Nairobi. It is funded by Living Room Ministries International, a California nonprofit founded by Reading, Calif., native Juli McGowan Boit in 2009.
Vogt and Hunter, both of whom are 59, and Siminski arrived at Kimbilio with seven suitcases packed with a total of 350 pounds of medical supplies, which are in short supply in rural Kenya. When they visited a nearby hospital, they were shocked by what they witnessed: Patients covered in bedsores sleeping two or three to a bed on filthy sheets. Those who couldn’t afford to pay their medical bills weren’t allowed to leave; they became virtual prisoners.
Kimbilio, originally conceived to help orphans with AIDS, was something altogether different. There, people suffering from terminal illness passed their remaining time in relative comfort with the benefit of at least some palliative care. Some, such as one 3-year-old boy with the weight of a 1-year-old, were treated in the hope they might one day return home.
“I didn’t see one grumpy person,” Hunter said. “Everyone had a smile.”
She was moved by the “sense of community” on display at the passing of a life. “It was so refreshing to see everyone just stop,” she said.
Upon their return home, Vogt suggested making some subtle but potentially meaningful changes at Lehigh Valley Hospice, which is a division of Lehigh Valley Health Network. For example, she’d like to bring her staff of nearly 100 hospice workers together for weekly meetings so they have the opportunity to share their experiences with each other.
She would also like to find a way for her workers to have “a moment of pause” after the death of a patient “to recognize the sacred event that it is.”
Information from: The Morning Call, https://www.mcall.com
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