From hospice patient to hospice volunteer
By Karen Mahoney
Special to your Catholic Herald
MUSKEGO – Compassion often comes on the heels of an intense trial.
Dennis Pierce of Muskego knows what it is like to be near death, and he has great empathy for the dying. He hopes they are afforded the dignity to do so in comfortable surroundings with love and spiritual support.
He and his wife Marjorie, both 77, consider it a blessing to help the dying by serving as volunteers for the hospice program of the Aurora Visiting Nurse Association. This work included providing respite care in patients’ homes as well as working at the Zilber Family Hospice in Wauwatosa, an Aurora facility. They were awarded the Aurora Visiting Nurse Association Volunteer of the Year award in October.
Volunteers for the terminally ill are difficult to find, but the Pierces’ consider it a privilege to do whatever they can to make the last days less burdensome for the patient and their family. Health issues of their own have forced Dennis and Marjorie to put their volunteering on hold until spring, but they plan to return to their volunteer schedule.
“We enjoyed assembling baskets of hope that we fill with about 20 items and give them to new patients,” said Marjorie. “We put in lotions, soaps, hand sanitizer, tea, lap robes, gloves – all kinds of things for both the patient and the caregiver.”
In addition to giving the gift of presence and offering family members respite, both assisted the chaplain by helping with mailings, and putting together a large binder of material and forms for each new patient.
“I would spend a lot of time at hospice headquarters preparing the binders,” Dennis said. “It was something I needed to do almost every week in order to keep up with the demand for these items.”
Whether it is a kind word, silent prayer, or a compassionate touch, it is important for the hospice patient and the family to know that someone cares about them. After all, it was a shining moment in a very dark time for Dennis and Marjorie.
When the end was seemingly near for Dennis, his wife Marjorie insisted he come home to die in the arms of his loving family.
In December 2001, after being diagnosed with Stage 3 Melanoma, the couple was told the disease had spread; and reactions to the medication left him in an extremely weakened state after nine days in the hospital’s intensive care unit. Doctors determined that further treatment could not save him. Marjorie was told her husband would not be lucid for very long.
Paralyzed, incontinent, and unable to feed himself or sit up, Dennis was on round-the-clock oxygen and medications. Marjorie knew she would have to quickly transition between her role as a wife and that of a nurse. Fortunately, she learned about hospice.
“I wasn’t familiar with the hospice program,” she admitted. “I know though without all the doctors, nurses, friends and prayers that I could not have brought him home. They were just wonderful and helped so much – they were wonderful.”
Determined not to isolate her husband in his last weeks of life, Marjorie had her two sons-in-law clear out the dining room and moved a hospital bed into the middle of the room. While Dennis appreciated seeing all the activity of the household, he knew his days were limited.
“It was strange. Marjorie had the family over one day and they brought a TV set in the dining room,” explained Dennis. “We watched videos from the past and sometime during those videos, I just put myself in the hands of the Lord. I said, ‘Jesus, I can’t do this alone, whatever needs to be done – if it can be, so be it.'”
During that call for help, Dennis knew that God heard his prayers.
“It’s hard to say this easily, but I knew that there was a presence in the room although no one spoke to me or touched me,” he said. “I knew he was there.”
Instead of dying, Dennis began to heal. He progressed enough to be removed from the hospice program Feb. 8, 2002. He transitioned from a wheelchair to a walker to a cane and by fall, 2002, walked unaided.
“My recovery is complete as far as we know,” said Dennis. “Every six months I see my oncologist and there is still no change; I am doing great. The oncologist is amazed, too. We are so blessed.”
While his recovery is deemed miraculous, doctors remained cautious as to the extent of Dennis’ recovery, and explained the limitations to Marjorie.
“They said he would be on oxygen for the rest of his life,” she said. “He is on no oxygen treatment, and he has been walking since he threw the cane away and has also been involved in an exercise program.”
Emerging from death as he did, Dennis was eager to give back to others, to share a message of hope, love and compassion.
“I realized how valuable their ministry was, when those volunteers came to sit with me,” he said. “I just knew I wanted to help, too, and brought Marjorie along when I signed up … and she signed up, too.”
The couple has modeled their marriage around Jesus and living a holy life, but Dennis believes his life was forever changed after his experience.
“I know I had an encounter with the Supreme Being and although we have been faithful, it strengthened our faith even more,” he said. “I enjoy volunteering and while I know that so few patients make it out of hospice, I would like to believe I am giving back, just by being there for them.”