Hospice Nurse: “I’ve always wanted to help people by making them feel better”

My aunt Danielle Hall (on the right) is a dual citizen who was born in Calgary and now lives and works as a hospice nurse in Chicago.

She traces her interest in working with the dying to when she was just five years old.

“I think how it started, when I reflect back, is that since my mother would often get headaches, she taught me how to rub her head to relieve them,” Danielle reminisced. “My mom would lay on the couch and I would stand behind her, rubbing her head with my fingers in circles around her forehead, and that’s when I first realized that I had a healing touch.”

On another memorable occasion, her mother had a friend over who complained of having a headache. Danielle got to work rubbing the woman’s head and marvelled at her satisfaction when, after five minutes, the headache was gone and she was feeling great.

“That’s my earliest memory of helping people and that impacted my life moving forward,” Danielle continued. “I’ve always wanted to help people by making them feel better. As I got older and considered what I wanted to do for work, it was always focused on some form of healing.”

Danielle was also greatly impacted by coming of age during the AIDS crisis. She describes this as a turning point because “so many people were dying and there was such a stigma with it, but I didn’t see it that way; I always wanted to go out and help them. And so I realized, I want to help dying people because whatever was going on with AIDS and also with cancer only solidified the direction I wanted to go. It took many years, but eventually I got there.”

She entered nursing school at 19, but her initial experiences working at a hospital frustrated her. There seemed to be a lot of pushing medications and the interactions with patients were not very one-to-one. Danielle then got married and chose to focus on raising her children. Eventually, she returned to nursing school to finish her studies and, after that, had the sense that hospice would be a better context for her to work. Gradually, she gained training and experience through doing crisis care in homes, working in the 24/7 triage department, speaking on the phones with families, handling admissions and symptom management, and going out into the field to manage emergent needs that arose.

Hospice became her passion. And Danielle is adamant that the word needs to get out about what hospice actually entails.

“I don’t want people to think that hospice is just giving morphine and lorazepam and putting the person into a twilight and letting them die. That is not what hospice is. Hospice is focused on a person’s life. Because once you die, you die. Well, your body dies. So our focus is not to get you to die sooner. Our focus is to help let you have the best quality of life until you die. And so, when someone asks me what the difference is between hospice and home care, I explain that hospice is actually a philosophy of care. It can be anywhere. We have patients who are at home. We have patients who are indigent; they don’t have a home. We’ve seen patients in a motel room. We have a guy who lived on his boat on Lake Michigan. Wherever you call home, that’s where hospice is going to be provided.”

Another misconception Danielle is quick to dispel is that hospice patients are all elderly. She told me that about 40% of the patients she sees are under 75.

“There are quite a few in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s. It’s all across the board. For the younger ones, cancer is most predominant. We have a lot of young people who die,” she said.

One of the most interesting things Danielle shared with me is about a certified music-thanatologist with whom she works. She told me there are only about a hundred of them in the world and that, at one point, JourneyCare had three of them. The one they have now is Tony Pedson. Danielle explained, “Tony focuses on symptom management and so, when someone is in respiratory distress and they’re breathing really hard, he plays the harp in tune with them and then is able to alter the music a little bit and actually affect the patient’s breathing and help transition them into greater comfort.” To hear a sample, click here.

Six years into being a hospice nurse, Danielle has a clear vision of what constitutes a good death and it involves both the dying patient and the surviving loved ones.

“When I think about what it means to have a good death, part of it is the patient dying comfortably and another part is the family being well-educated and prepared. If you just manage the patient, it’s not enough. Because, if you think about it, I love my kids and I don’t want them to suffer from my death. So the families need to have that education and acceptance in order to continue living well.”

I was interested to ask whether Danielle tries to separate her work from the rest of her life. To this, she said, “I never completely leave my work when I go home. It’s a part of my life. Since I consider it a calling for me to be a hospice nurse, it’s entwined with my whole being. It’s part of my identity, I guess you could say. But I don’t dwell on the sadness, or things like that. For me, when I’m able to be with someone when they die, that to me is kind of a gift or a privilege, and I’m very honoured to be there.”

Still, Danielle considers it beneficial to go on vacations where she can sit by a beach or a pool and take a break that gives her mind and heart a rest and enables her to savour life and enjoy its preciousness. When people sometimes express admiration after Danielle tells others what she does, she likes to convey to them that it is not actually hard for her because she feels she is on the path on which she’s meant to be and finds the opportunity to provide one-on-one care to one patient at a time so rewarding.

“So, back to your original question,” Danielle added to conclude, “my work does affect me because I know that, at any time, my life can be gone. You cherish what time you have and you live for today because tomorrow may not come. And so, for me, I’m not going to wait around to do something. And that’s kind of the way I’ve always been. I’m going to do it now. Because why wait? What are you waiting for?”

Thanks to my aunt for the interview!

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