Every week, I will be profiling an extraordinary human being who lives in our community. If you know someone who is doing something interesting with their life, I want to hear about it. Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Everyone is different. Everyone has a story.
And that is exactly the reason why I feel so lucky – and in many instances honoured – to be able to write Doppler’s weekly extraordinary person profile. There are so many wonderfully unique people, from all walks of life, living in this awesome town. It’s full of talented musicians, artists, writers, athletes and overflowing with selfless, caring volunteers.
Pat Looker is one of those selfless, caring volunteers. More than three decades ago, she had a terrible experience with her grandma dying at a hospital. Back then, there was no choice for special palliative care services like hospice. The way her grandmother was cared for and how decisions were made without notifying the family really impacted Pat.
“Nobody was happy with the way she died,” she recalls. “That kind of got me interested [in palliative care]to start with. I was a nurse already. I had experience with death… and not having a good death. I took courses in palliative care in Oshawa, and when we moved here in 1992, with three kids under the age of 10, I wasn’t ready to pick up new work. But I could be useful with my experience. I started volunteering. So the reason was personal.”
As a volunteer for Hospice Huntsville, Pat works in both the residence as well as private homes. She’s there to make things easier for a family when a loved one is dying. Depending on how many clients there are she devotes four hours, two to four days a month, at the residence doing everything from supporting families to answering the phone and anything else that’s needed.
“I’m kind of a jack of all trades,” she says.
She’s seen a lot and done it all. She’s been there many times to see a person take their last breath. She’s been a listening ear to the person who is dying and held a family member’s hand while they watch a loved one pass away. Often she speaks some kind words of consolation, and then there’s times when she says nothing at all.
It takes a certain type of person to be a volunteer, but to be one in palliative care says a lot about that person. Pat is not hardened by death and it’s not like she has a switch to turn off her emotions. It’s all about empathy and having the ability to understand what the person who is dying is going through. You have to be able to think about where they are in the process, not where you think they should go.
In my opinion, it’s probably a good thing not to be overly talkative but to be a good listener. You have to be someone who’s not afraid of the death process. I’ve learned so much about life and living life to the fullest because you never know when your time is up. My friend was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and in five months she was gone. You think about death and what you want for yourself.
Do want to die at home? Do you want family to help or a palliative care team? Some people want to go straight to the hospital, and sometimes they don’t have a choice. These are some of the questions we all need to think about, says Pat. The length of our life time is the one thing that can’t be pinpointed so her best advice is to live each day as if it’s your last. Laugh a lot. Tell someone how you feel about them. Make a bucket list. Do something you’ve always wanted to do.
“Don’t ask me how I feel about assisted suicide,” says Pat. I hadn’t even thought of that but then I start wondering how she does feel about it. I know I’m totally in favour. “A lot of people want to have a good death. Be sure to talk with people. Get all your wishes out. People can actually get closer with their family if they have that time.”
Something Pat does know for sure, having lost her grandmother, her mother three years ago, and a close friend, and seeing countless people die peacefully (and often not in peace), is that the time that passes lessens the pain but the memories will live on forever. Something can always trigger them: a random song that comes on the radio or something totally out of the blue. Whether the loved one died way too soon or lived to a ripe, old age. The bottom line is you will never forget them.
The toughest part of what I do is seeing someone whose pain is out of control or when their breathing can’t be helped. They need a good palliative team. Volunteers can’t help. It’s out of our hands.
She works with a great group of volunteers and they’re the sort of team who never forget your face. Each of them are always interested in what’s happening with you and hospice.
“The volunteers themselves need support as well and that’s why we have volunteer meetings. You’re working on your own most of the time. Sometimes you’re the one who needs to talk. It’s not really healthy, I don’t think, to keep it all in.”
At 62, Pat’s not going to be slowing down any time soon. She loves what she does and she’ll keep doing it for as long as she can. It’s become a passion of hers and she truly believes this is a needed service that people appreciate.
When I met up with Pat at the hospice residence to take some pictures, I knew it would bring back some difficult memories. It’s where my mom died four years ago. I took a deep breath before I entered the doors, and introduced myself to Pat in the kitchen. And then, out of nowhere, my emotions got the best of me. I started bawling. I couldn’t help it. I apologize to her for the waterworks and admit I’m sort of embarrassed. I feel unprofessional for some reason. But Pat gently places her hand on my shoulder and assures me there’s nothing to be embarrassed about. Like she told me before, the memories of a loved one never fade away. And I experienced first-hand what makes her so good at what she does.
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