Offering comfort when it’s needed mostCaring for the sick may be an unspoken duty of the healthy, but tending to those who face death is a challenge that many are loathe to take. For the terminally ill, there’s no comfort in doctors, and for the families, there are no words to give consolation for the grief that must be endured.
To help patients and families cope with the passing of life with dignity, hospice is a reassuring choice. Dedicated to providing physical, mental and emotional care for the dying and their families, hospice can give hope and comfort where it is most needed.
“People nearing death tend to be in denial: the families often refuse to give up and find it unbearable, but we help them prepare for death through acceptance,” says Sister Anna of Mohyun Hospice, a homecare hospice center in Huam-dong, Yongsan district.
Homecare hospice allows caretakers to visit patients in their homes, providing services such as pain control, physical and emotional comfort and, for bereaved families, postmortum care.
“Hospice can oftentimes be more effective than relying on medical support from hospitals,” says Mohyun Hospice’s Sister Stella. “In hospitals, doctors rarely have time to listen to patients. Our number one priority is to listen to patients. They find it a great relief just to talk openly about their fears.”
After early morning Mass, the five nuns of Mohyun Hospice gather to prepare for their afternoon visits to patients all over Seoul. In the morning meeting, presided over by Sister Stella and attended by four other resident nuns and a full-time physician, the nuns discuss their patients ― ones they are looking after, and ones who have recently passed away ― and their duties for the day.
While preparing their lunches, the nuns, who belong to the Catholic order Sisters of the Little Company of Mary, chat merrily about their patients’ health, and talk of death with no air of somberness.
Indeed, they are full of levity, exchanging pleasantries, making it hard to believe these are women who deal with the dying on a daily basis.
“What we do is care for the dying, so for us, conversations are centered on death, and it doesn’t depress us one bit,” Sister Anna says. “Helping patients and families cope is our vocation.”
“You need humor to do what we do,” says Sister Stella, the group’s coordinator. “Otherwise, the depression can get to you.”
The Sisters of the Little Company of Mary, founded in 1877 in England, are committed to serving the poor, the sick and especially the terminally ill. The nuns of this order founded the hospice movement in Korea, first coming here in the early 1960s, in Gangwon province, which at the time was an impoverished mining community; the nuns cared for many tuberculosis patients there.
Their legacy lives on in Galbari Hospital in Ganeung, the first hospital to provide hospice services in Korea in 1965, and in Mohyun Hospice, a sister branch which started in 1987 in Seoul.
Currently, there are almost 80 hospice service providers in Korea. Funded by private sponsorships, the Sisters of Mohyun have so far cared for nearly 1,500 of the terminally ill from ages 4 to 93, the bulk of whom were cancer patients.
The name Mohyun, meaning “a mother’s hill,” refers to the place where Christ was crucified as the Virgin Mary looked on. Ironically, a Buddhist monk who volunteered at the hospice in its early days gave it its name.
“Hospice is not about providing a cure. We do not claim to cure patients, but we care for them,” says Sister Stella.
Most of the nuns’ patients are in the last stages of cancer. The period of care averages three to six months, since most turn to hospice in the last stages of illness, but Sister Stella says, “We’ve looked after patients for up to a year or two years. Usually, if their lives appear to be extending, we end our visits to them.”
While most nuns in Korea wear black or grey attire, the Sisters of the Little Company of Mary wear light blue veils and navy dresses.
“Dying people can’t bear to see drab colors such as black or white because it reminds them of death,” Sister Stella explains. “People tell us that the light blue makes us look brighter and cheerier.”
After lunch, Sister Stella and Sister Maria Magdalene, both of whom are registered nurses, set out together on their round of home visits, walking briskly. In the subway, they meet with Father Martine, a newly ordained priest, who joins them in their journey to Nowon district.
At the home of Hong Jeom-sun, 66, the team is greeted warmly by the patient and her family.
Ms. Hong was diagnosed with breast cancer 11 years ago; after several operations and periods of remission, the cancer has returned, and is in its last stages. The frail, gentle-faced lady began hospice treatment in March. She smiles constantly at Sister Stella, who embraces her. The group is led to the master bedroom, where Ms. Hong sits up on the bed eagerly.
At the request of the patient, Father Martine prepares Communion. The group prays the Lord’s Prayer, and Father Martine sprinkles holy water on Ms. Hong’s head and puts his hands on her head to pray for her momentarily.
After the service, Ms. Hong tells the group how painful it was to attend Mass the previous Sunday.
“I’ve never felt as helpless and weak as I was yesterday,” she says. “I could barely breathe nor move. This is the first time in my life I regretted coming to Mass, because of the physical pain.”
Father Martine says, “Don’t strain yourself. If you feel too weak to walk, then you ought to stay home rather than attending Mass. You must take care of yourself first.” Ms. Hong complains that she has difficulty breathing, and that food always tastes bitter now.
“She barely eats,” says Lee Jeong-geun, 71, her husband. “She’ll die of not eating if it’s not cancer.”
Mr. Lee scowls, but heeds his wife tenderly when she asks for water.
Sister Stella sits beside Ms. Hong, pats her back and touches her eyelids. “Try getting an X-ray to see if you have water in the lungs,” she says. “That may be one reason for the difficult breathing. Also, why not try using a wheelchair?”
Ms. Hong frowns. “I hate wheelchairs,” she says. “I don’t like being seen in a wheelchair.” Sister Maria Magdalene says, “You seem weaker since our last visit. You ought to take extra care now.”
Sister Stella prescribes a new set of painkillers and hands them to Mr. Lee. Ms. Hong sighs. “What I wouldn’t do to lessen the medication,” she says. “My tongue is always dry from all the pills.”
Sister Stella tells her, “God knows you are in pain, even if you don’t pray.”
“Feeling weaker is natural,” Father Martine tells her. “You shouldn’t be so obsessed with the changes in your health, otherwise your mental health will deteriorate. Try to accept the changes as they come. Don’t feel sorry for others who try to help you, but just be grateful you have a wonderful family and friends who care for you.”
Sister Stella says merrily, “I’m going to give you homework. You must practice ‘acceptance.’”
The conversation turns to past patients the nuns have cared for. Sister Stella says, “A patient once asked me if I got married, because I had not shown up for some time.” The entire group laughs out loud.
Sister Stella asks whether there’s anything Ms. Hong would like to say to her husband, or vice versa. The couple sits silently for a moment before Mr. Lee says gruffily, “Nothing much. I’m with her every second of the day, so we don’t have anything new to say.” The sisters urge the couple to talk to each other more, and with more candor.
Before leaving, Sister Stella gives a huge hug to Ms. Hong, who says, “Thank you so much.” Mr. Lee asks Sister Stella about getting an X-ray for his wife.
“Having the sisters come visit gives peace of mind to my wife,” Mr. Lee says. “It’s a wonderful consolation. When she’s in pain, I tell her Sister Stella will come and she makes an effort to get better.”
Both sisters have been present when a patient’s last breath has been taken. Sister Maria Magdalene says, “I am glad just knowing he or she has gone to heaven.”
by Choi Jie-ho