Thursday, August 20, 2009

Knocking on Death’s Door

Aida Bilog Sambat stares death in the face every day. As a hospice nurse in America, her work brings her to the beds of the terminally ill, those who are but a few steps away from death’s door.

Trained to care for the critically ill, hospice nurses are often seen as death angels—medical professionals who are tasked to end the life of a patient. But to Aida, who has held the hand of many a dying patient, a hospice nurse does more than prolong life or provide comfort to people during their final hours.

“Medical, surgical, and intensive care nurses help patients become well, [while] hospice nurses prepare patients for their journey beyond,” Aida writes in her book, From the Womb to the Tomb: Diary of a Hospice Nurse.

She’s seen some patients die alone and others with not a single cent to pay for their burial expenses. She’s helped relatives of the dying come to terms with death and most often weeps along with them for a patient that she has become fond of.

Had she known that she would be caring for dying patients in America, she probably would not have left her hometown, Katipunan, 14 kilometers away from Dipolog City. The experience turned out to be “an extraordinary privilege.”

“[As a hospice nurse], I had the opportunity to meet and care for many wonderful people during a different time in their lives, most often until the very end. It is hard to imagine the mindset one would have when they are facing their impending death until you see someone experience it firsthand.”

More than just a diary of a Filipino nurse who has made it big in America, From the Womb to the Tomb is Aida’s advocacy for the terminally ill.

“I feel there is a need for more public awareness when it comes to the needs of terminally ill patients. Death is a certainty, yet it is a topic that is less talked about. [For example,] many people incorrectly believe that pain medication like morphine hastens the death of the patient. Contrary to this belief, good pain management will prolong the life of a patient,” she says.

In her book, Aida takes us to the homes of her terminally ill patients, where she does more than give medication or get their vital signs. We’re privy to private conversations about life and dying. We smile when we read her playful banter with one patient, a former high-school principal who constantly quizzed her about history. She tells us of another patient, an Italian immigrant who hopes to hear from a long lost brother. We nod in agreement with another patient, once wealthy, who would realize that in the twilight of his life, all he had was a shoebox of memories.

Aida’s work doesn’t end when a patient is taken away by the funeral home. Once, she and several nurses offered to pool together their money for the cremation of a dead patient whose family could not afford to pay for it. Another time, Aida was tasked to break the news to a son that his mother only had a few days to live.
What Aida’s book tells us is something we all know but never wanted to talk about: that death is happiest for one who dies at home, where happy memories abound and where they are surrounded by loved ones, that the dying will embrace death when they have lived a full life with no regrets.

One of Aida’s patient sums it best: “Do anything you want to do now, because there’s no guarantee of a tomorrow.”

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