Meet the People Granting Wishes to the Dying

One of this blog’s readers, Lisa Wright, reached out to me to share about the organization she co-founded called the Living Wish Foundation.

Lisa, who is an Registered Nurse specializing in palliative care, and her co-founders established the Foundation with the mission “to provide medically supervised and supported end of life wishes to patients in the region who are facing a terminal diagnosis.” They do this by granting wishes that enable patients to reframe hope so to enhance their quality of life until their death.

I was fascinated by this initiative, and delighted to interview Lisa by phone to learn more.

In particular, I wanted to hear from her about how granting wishes serves to “reframe hope.”

“When you’re facing a terminal diagnosis, it’s the hardest conversation,” Lisa began, “Doctors don’t want to tell patients there’s nothing they can do because it’s not why they became a doctor. And, as a palliative care nurse, I’ve seen how, after the patient has that conversation, they lose themselves in a sense. When a person feels they have nothing left to look forward to, they kind of just step out of life a bit.”

Realizing that it “kind of dehumanizes a person to be just… waiting to die”, Lisa and her team thought about what they can offer those to whom they may not be able to offer a cure. They then came to the realization that they can offer a wish, something meaningful, something that will bring the person joy, something to which a person can look forward with hope.

Initially, Lisa and her colleagues thought that this could become a huge undertaking. They worried about the expense and feared getting overwhelmed with too many wishes. However, as they began soliciting wishes, Lisa recalled, “The wishes that came in were so simple because adults do not wish for twenty people to go to Disney World; adults wish for a connection with the people that they love.”

The Living Wish Foundation features anecdotes of wishes granted on their website. The wishes are beautifully simple, low in cost and rich in meaning. Lisa elaborated one story about a man named Walter who used to love going for ice cream with his wife. Eventually his wife passed away and his favourite ice cream flavour, Rum and Raisin, no longer existed. The Living Wish Foundation found an ice cream shop that was willing to recreate his favourite flavour to give him the joy of remembering those cherished experiences with his wife.

“These are the things that make people change their train of thought,” Lisa explained. “It gives the person something to focus on that’s positive, something to look forward to. It brings them back into life so that they can live until the end. And even though Walter’s wife had passed away, the taste of that ice cream could, in a sense, bring her back to him.”

I found this story very moving and asked about the effect that working to grant meaningful wishes for the dying has on family, friends, medical staff, and volunteers.

Lisa told me that the ripple effect is huge. When someone receives a terminal diagnosis, their family members can feel unsure that there is anything they can do to help. And, if they don’t have medical expertise and are not the primary caregiver, they might feel like they are just standing by and become uncomfortable. Giving friends and family members a job to do in helping to fulfill a person’s wish can be healing, to some extent, for everyone.

She has also witnessed the impact on kids of granting wishes to the dying. In some cases, this is the first time that children will face up to the reality of death. And so, instead of seeing death as being a topic of secrecy and sadness, involving children in the fulfilment of a person’s wishes can create positive memories. Lisa recalled one woman’s wish to go to the beach for the day with her children and grandchildren. The Living Wish Foundation was able to “break her out of hospice” and, Lisa recounted, “The family all together for a day at the beach — that’s the memory the kids will have of their grandma from the time she was sick. That was a year and a half ago and those kids are probably still remembering that day.”

Naturally, I wondered about the impact that this work has on the members of the Living Wish Foundation and on the broader local community. Lisa told me that the work certainly leads her to think about what her own end of life wishes would be, but that the key insights for her have been on the professional front.

Lisa reflected: “You work as a nurse, you work as a doctor, you’re in medicine. You have all these patients that have all of these going on. You became a nurse or a doctor because you care. Because you thought you’d be having the space for all of these meaningful conversations and helping people. You thought that you would be there for them. And then you actually start doing the job and you’re short-staffed. They need tests. They need an IV. Then they need a blood transfusion. They need help to survive. And you don’t have time left at the end of the day for the other things. So often, you don’t even know the patient in front of you. You know that the patient has this or that wrong with them but you don’t know them as a person. And so the lesson for me is to take the time, make the time to get to know the person in front of you.”

Once she had a patient who was an 102-year-old woman who was receiving palliative care at home. In order to avoid discussing her illness with the nurses, including Lisa, this woman would talk about how she used to love visiting the casino when she was young. When the nurses would talk amongst themselves, they would ask, “Why can’t we take her to the casino?!”

But of course the answer was obvious: It wasn’t covered by insurance. The company wouldn’t allow it. They didn’t have the proper vehicle to transport her safely. And these kinds of scenarios came up constantly.

And so, Lisa explains, the expenses involved in granting wishes to the dying do not come down to the items wished for but rather the logistics that enable the fulfilment of the wishes.

Now the Foundation is a registered charity and granting wishes is possible.

“Everything was complicated until we started the Foundation and now, not at all. We can do these things now. We have an ambulance. We have stretcher transfer. We can take people in wheelchair taxis. We have the basic infrastructure. We have insurance, documentation, and the support of the local community. We have forty clinical volunteers, nurses, doctors, and our community just loves it,” Lisa said with enthusiasm.

The volunteer-led registered charity is now hoping to grow. In 2019, they exceeded the goal of granting one wish per month. And even though people are more hesitant to ask for wishes during the pandemic and some people mistakenly think that the Foundation is not granting wishes, the Foundation is continuing to safely and steadily increase the number of wishes they grant to the dying. 

While the Living Wish Foundation was founded and operates in Wasaga Beach, it would be wonderful for the foundation to grow in scope and be able to grant wishes to more Canadians nationwide.

To help reframe hope for patients approaching the end of life, consider making a contribution here.

To follow The Living Wish Foundation on Facebook, click here.

To share an enlivening story of your own with me, click here.

Photo: My grandfather enjoying extra maraschino cherries with his Shirley Temple.

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