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Lessons I’ve Learned in Hospice

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It is truly an honor to share the following first-person essay by Walter “Skip” Mannke, a patient at High Pointe House. It is a rare and special privilege to learn a patient’s perspective on the importance of hospice services while coping with a life-limiting illness. We join Skip in expressing our gratitude to the donors who support our nonprofit organization’s mission of providing physical, spiritual, and emotional care with compassion to anyone who seeks our services, regardless of their health insurance coverage or ability to pay.

Lessons I’ve Learned in Hospice

By Walter “Skip” Mannke

from High Pointe House, the hospice and palliative care residence of Tufts Medicine Care at Home in Haverhill

Everyone should get sick. Maybe not dying sick, but sick enough to realize where they stand in life.

My entire family has gotten tighter since I was diagnosed with cancer in July 2021. Since that time, I’ve received last rites twice. So now I’ve learned to accept help – and appreciate it.

When the older of my two daughters was born, I was a heavy drinker with 13 bars within walking distance of where we lived in Boston. When I quit drinking, I became a better person. We moved to be near family in Methuen, and I haven’t had a sip of alcohol in 38 years.

I used to do HVAC work, and I was a maintenance supervisor at a nursing home. I thought I knew what hospice is: the end of the road. But now that I’ve become a hospice patient, I’ve found that I still have a lot to live for – much more than I ever knew. And understanding that has changed my life.

A month ago, I was like everybody else – but I’m different now. I no longer use the words “thank you” as a throwaway phrase. When I say thank you, or I love you, I mean it from my heart. I’m very appreciative of the small things in life and the people around me. In many cases, my visitors are people I never would have expected. I’ve even gotten calls from neighbors asking where I am and if everything is ok. Three called to tell me I’m a vital cog in the neighborhood!

I get so many visitors; I never know who is going to walk through the door. I needed a watch charger and a friend brought his right over. A neighbor whose walk I shoveled when I was doing my own stopped by. Someone else brought a flag signed by 28 friends from our golf course to say they’re all thinking about me. I asked all the nurses here who are taking care of me to sign the other side, and it’s going to stay with me. People like my night nurse who, on her night off, bought me four different pairs of reading glasses because she didn’t know my size. That means more to me than anything.

I commend every single person who helps another human being. In hospice, it seems like compassion is more than half the job. My nurses’ dedication to managing my symptoms so well has enabled me to focus on finding meaning and purpose. I’m the least sick person in this building, so I tell them I’m your last priority. I try not to press the call button, but the nurses always tell me, “We’re here to do that for you.” To have somebody clean you, to deal with you, that’s special. I drink a lot of Cokes, but I have more fluid coming out of my eyes than going into my catheter bag whenever I think of how good everybody has been to me.

Would you know I came to High Pointe House twice over the years to visit patients? Never in a million years did I think I’d be a patient myself! But I’m 77 now, and I’m not worried about dying. I tell the nurses to keep it up because they have a special talent, and the next Skip who will be in this bed needs you.

I feel so fortunate to be able to talk with my two daughters, my granddaughter, and my three grandsons. I’m sad that I never knew how much I matter to people before, but now I see how many people care about me. There’s so much love out there.

I’d have to make up my own language to have the words to say how lucky I am. I got to know where I stand in life, and it’s better than I ever knew.

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