I GRABBED MY BAG from the trunk of my car, took a deep breath, and headed for the door. I was new to home healthcare, and Mrs. M was one of many patients assigned to my caseload. I was going to assess her and draw lab specimens, and felt a little nervous about meeting her for the first time.
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Mrs. M, along with her housekeeper Ms. D, was waiting for me. Mrs. M was the picture of the stereotypical grandmother-a petite, white-haired, 80-year-old woman who was fully alert and oriented. I wanted to provide her the best care I could.
Mrs. M took my hand, looked me in the eye, introduced herself, and welcomed me into her home. Widowed with no children, she'd moved to town about 20 years ago to retire. She'd been diagnosed with lymphoma less than 18 months earlier and her prognosis was poor. But what drew me to her was her liveliness. Instead of focusing on her condition, she immediately began asking me questions about my life. She was genuinely interested, and I had a difficult time redirecting the conversation to the reason for my visit.
I'd scheduled Mrs. M as one of my first visits of the day because she lived so close to the office, but I quickly learned that wasn't going to work. Having tea or coffee with her visitors was very important to her. It was her way of welcoming you to her home and showing friendship. If I quickly completed the visit and left, she was insulted. So I changed her appointment time to the end of the day so I'd have enough time for a proper visit. I'd call her when I was on my way, and she'd have coffee and cookies ready by the time I arrived.
Mrs. M and I developed a bond over the months that followed. For a while I had a hard time believing her prognosis because she was so full of life. She loved to laugh and tell stories about her days as one of the only female investment bankers in New York and how she met her husband.
It didn't take me long to learn not to admire anything in her home because if I did, Mrs. M would try to give it to me. Its value didn't matter. What mattered to her was making her friends happy.
One day, I began to see a decline in Mrs. M's condition. Suddenly she wasn't as energetic and talkative as she used to be, but she always smiled when I was there and continued to ask me about my life and family. I think it created a diversion that helped her forget about her pain for a short time.
I tried to talk about hospice with her, but she'd hear nothing of it. "They can't do anything for me in hospice that you can't do," she'd say.
Little things matter
Not long after that, I learned Mrs. M had been admitted to the hospital. I made plans to visit her but was stopped short by a call from Ms. D., who told me that she'd died that morning. As I sat there choking back the tears, Ms. D told me how much my visits had meant to them. "You always made time for Mrs. M," she said, "and that was so important to her."
Thirteen years later, I still think about Mrs. M from time to time, and laugh when I recall her spunk and charm. But most of all, I think about how she taught me that sometimes it's the little things in life that matter most, like taking the time to listen to a patient's stories and share your own over a cup of coffee and some cookies.