Miracle Moments Miracle Moments In Work Life
Seeing Jesus Christ In the Care Of The Dying  

OTHER TERESA OF CALCUTTA has long been an inspiration and mentor for me as a Christian and as a holistic nurse. She taught me to look beyond earthly appearances to another reality in which we may be privileged to witness the face of Jesus Christ in one another.

This became especially true as I made the transition to a hospice nurse at CHRISTUS St. Joseph Hospital during Easter week in April, 1998.

PullquoteI knew I was being called to care for the dying and their families through a vision I experienced during contemplative prayer during the holidays a few months earlier. And since the day I met Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, one of the foremost authorities in the field of death, dying and transition, at the University of Houston in 1979, I knew in my heart I would some day come to relieve human suffering through caring for terminally ill people. I have always believed that healing and a sense of wholeness can occur in all stages of our human existence, including the dying process, and that Jesus is the greatest teacher of this universal truth.

The vision, mission and values of CHRISTUS Health nourish and sustain me on even the most challenging days with hectic schedules and stacks of paperwork. I have grown professionally and spiritually over the last four years as a part of the CHRISTUS family, and have taken advantage of opportunities to follow my heart in answering the call to extend the healing ministry of Jesus Christ in various capacities as a nurse.

One of the patients who taught me the most about life—the priceless value of a caring community and gratitude—was a hospital patient I will call ‘E.’ He was a frail older black man diagnosed with terminal lung cancer who insisted on being addressed by his first name. He lived upstairs in a small one-room apartment that was part of a boarding house in one of the poorer sections of downtown Houston, less than two miles from the hospital.

In that neighborhood, drug and alcohol use was a common daytime occurrence on the streets, but I never felt afraid when I visited ‘E.’ In fact, I was welcomed and greeted with respect by all the neighbors and friends who were glad to see ‘E’ receiving nursing care in his apartment.

Though modest, the building’s interior invited a sense of community with shared bathrooms upstairs near the bedrooms and a large kitchen downstairs. There was no air conditioning, and the rooms were heated by gas space heaters. Though many people might question the quality of his life and environment, it was obvious ‘E’ viewed this place as a home and enjoyed his lifestyle and community.

His strong conviction was to live there as long as possible with the support of his landlord and neighbors who looked after him, and the hospice team. The genuine care and concern for his well-being was demonstrated by his neighbors one hot summer day when two of them helped me carry ‘E’ up the stairs to his bed after he was weakened and dehydrated by too much heat. ‘E’s’ landlord even rode his bicycle to a neighborhood pharmacy to pick up ‘E’s’ medications, and also made sure he kept all his doctor’s appointments.

Coordinating ‘E’s’ care was a joy and a challenge. I learned to respect his values and definition of comfort as I grew to know and appreciate him. In the beginning, I focused on improving the safety of his surroundings—for example, getting his permission to rearrange his TV and radio so he would not have to walk over loose cords. I was especially concerned due to his extremely limited vision and his need to walk with a cane. However, I would return a couple of days later, only to find everything had been put back in its previous, unsafe position.

But ‘E’ was always polite and grateful for every small act of kindness. He was still thanking me weeks after I brought him a pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving Day.

‘E’s’ plan of care was limited at times by his lifestyle choices. He smoked heavily, drank beer daily, did not take his medications on a consistent basis, and often neglected his personal care needs. It was not safe to bring oxygen into his apartment because he often ran a space heater even on fairly warm days, and he refused to quit smoking. His care remained patient-focused and we were supportive of his informed choices, reminding him he could receive bathing assistance and a hospital stay for symptom control whenever appropriate.

However, ‘E’ chose to remain in his apartment and have his nursing visits increased to daily as needed. During his last few days when his breathing became very labored, he finally required hospitalization.

‘E’ had lived longer than anyone dreamed possible, and I envisioned a dozen guardian angels looking over him, thinking it was a miracle he never started a fire in his apartment with his smoking habit and tendency to place items too close to his space heater.

When I visited ‘E’ in the hospital as he was dying, I became aware of the deep place in my heart where he had grown to live. I was moved to tears as I truly witnessed ‘Jesus in disguise,’ gazing upon ‘E’s’ inner beauty, and realizing how much I would miss this precious man.

I feel so blessed to work for a health care system based on Christian values, where care of the whole person with dignity and respect is honored, and the Mission is to extend the healing ministry of Jesus Christ.

Karin Boeringa, RN
CHRISTUS St. Joseph Hospital
Houston, Texas