October 6 2013
The Denver Post
From Colorado's Future Project, an educational initiative of Independent Women's Forum
"Do not go gentle into that good night. Old age should burn and rave at close of day; rage, rage against the dying of the light," wrote Welsh poet Dylan Thomas when his father faced death. We, too, took up that grim fight when my dad was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive cancer in the fall of 2004.
We blasted it with everything we had in our medical arsenal: two surgeries, 100 radiation treatments, and several rounds of chemo. With that effort, my dad, an otherwise healthy, hardy 61-year-old, gained two years of relative calm. The cancer wasn't beaten, but had slowed into quasi-remission.
That quiet ended one night with an audible "pop." Walking out of a movie, my dad's pelvis cracked in half like a dry piece of old wood. The cancer had crept into his bones. But we would not go gently.
Not giving up, not giving in, but steeling ourselves to the "new normal" of advanced cancer, we were determined to rage against death by embracing life. We were connected with the Denver Hospice, whose team became our partners in getting the most out of Dad's remaining days.
With the help of radiation, physical therapy, a walker and later just a cane, Dad was able to walk again. His hospice nurse got his pain under control without compromising his mental faculties. He could still play a mean hand of gin rummy and advise me on home-improvement projects. Hospice also treated problems as they arose, such as life-threatening blood clots and another painful bone tumor. The goal was to make Dad as comfortable and pain-free as possible.
Because of hospice's compassionate support, each member of my family was able to focus on being alive for Dad's remaining nine months. We visited our Wyoming cabin, fished the river, and held weekly dinner and game nights for family and friends.
During hospice's weekly visits, and later more frequently, our nurse and social worker listened to our concerns, helped us know what to expect, and taught us caregiving skills. Like roughly 66 percent of hospice patients nationwide, Dad received hospice care at home.
The Denver Hospice was always a phone call away if Mom — Dad's primary caregiver — needed help. Even after Dad's death, the Denver Hospice continued to provide support. Its grief group for spouses played a special role in my mom's healing.
My favorite memory from that time: On an icy February day, Dad and I went to see "Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure," a documentary about an ill-fated exploration of the frozen continent. The ship's name was Endurance; I remember it well, because Shackleton and my father, in their darkest hours, epitomized that word.
I share this experience because hospice continues to suffer from misperceptions that discourage families from accessing care when they need it most. Hospice care has grown in recent years: Some 1.65 million Americans received services in 2011, according to the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, up from 1.4 million in 2007. Yet many Americans remain unaware of all of their options.
There are 48 hospice organizations in Colorado, according to hospicedirectory.org. They serve patients whose life expectancy is roughly six months or less. Some people, like my dad, receive care longer.
Dad did not go gentle into that good night. Perhaps some people pass quietly and peacefully. Hard nights preceded his final breath. To the end, though, he fought the dying of the light by living brightly.
I thank the Denver Hospice for helping us make the most of that time together.
Krista Kafer is director of Colorado's Future Project.