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Beyond the Garden Room

Special gifts help patients die at home, fulfill end-of-life needs and wishes

TUNBRIDGE, Aug. 15, 2011 – Each year on the third Saturday in August a group of about 200 motorcyclists travels 100 miles through central Vermont in support of Gifford Medical Center's end-of-life care program. Called the Last Mile Ride, the event each year raises tens of thousands of dollars.

Those funds support services for patients in advanced illness and at the end-of-life, such as massages for pain management, food for families staying with their loved ones in Gifford's Garden Room for end-of-life patients, bereavement mailers, help completing Advance Directives as well as special training for staff, support of local hospice singing group Riberbend and much more.

New in the last year is the institution of special one-time grants for patients and families. The small grants are meant to address a special patient need and to make end of life more dignified and less stressful, emotionally and financially.

Gifts, for example, have helped local residents Evelyn Billings and Linda Austin fulfill their wish to die at home and prevented Robert Hoot from dying along.

Evelyn Billings

It was Evelyn Billings wish to die at home, and – after a lifetime of caring for others – her family this July did everything possible to fulfill that wish.

Born and raised in Rochester, Evelyn moved to Randolph in 1939 to attend nursing school at what is now Gifford Medical Center. She went on to become a nurse at Gifford. She also farmed with her husband Gilbert on Route 12 south of Randolph Village, worked at Pinnacle Ski Ways in Randolph with Gilbert and did civil defense work during World War II. That work, says daughter-in-law Gail Billings of Randolph, included manning a hut off from what is now Fairview Street. As part of the war effort, three women shared the hut at time, searching the skies for enemy planes.

In more recent years, a bad heart valve and then two strokes diminished Evelyn’s health, restricting her speech but never dousing the sparkle in her eye.

“She had a bright smile and twinkling eyes. She just had a personality that made you love her,” says Gail, calling her a caregiver through and through.

“I don’t know if it is ‘once a mom always a mom,’ or ‘once a nurse always a nurse,’” says Gail, but Evelyn took care of everyone. After a day of haying, she awaited the family with a full meal to replenish their bellies. If you were going away, she always waved you off, arm in arm with Gilbert, her husband of 68 years.

Among Evelyn’s loves was music.

So when Evelyn this July was hospitalized due to fluid building up around her heart, her primary care physician Dr. Jonna Goulding made special arrangements for Brookfield music therapist Islene Runningdeer – through a Last Mile Ride grant – to visit Evelyn in the hospital and then at home.    

It was the perfect gift, says Gail.

Setting up a large keyboard in her hospital room, Runningdeer played a mixture of classical piano, which Evelyn always loved, and old-time music from ’20s, ’30s and ’40s. “She loved it,” says Gail. Gilbert sat and listened too, and two visiting great-grandchildren danced to the beat.

Once home, it was at the kitchen table that Runningdeer sang, and Evelyn, despite her speech limitations, joined in. “They just loved it. Both of them did. They would have had it everyday if they could of,” says Gail of her father- and mother-in-law.

They also shared stories from their younger years. “It helped to recall their memories of their life together. Music has a way of doing that,” adds Runningdeer, who has a background in hospice work.

In late July, Evelyn’s health declined rapidly when she fell. On Thursday, July 28, Runningdeer visited for the last time. This time the songs were about love, hope, peace and letting go.

The next day, with a houseful of family and friends at her bedside, Evelyn let go – a smile replacing her agony, her wish of dying at home fulfilled.

“She just looked absolutely at peace,” said Gail. “Because of that grant and that music, she went into it so much more peaceful. All the things she loved were in place and all of her wishes were granted.

“It was perfect, and we’ll be forever grateful.”

Linda Austin

Born and raised in Randolph, Linda Austin married late in life and, sadly, the marriage was brief.

Linda met Nathan Austin through a farmers’ magazine. The two became pen pals, and then Nathan would drive his motorcycle down from his East Burke home to visit Linda in Randolph. On one such visit, Nathan popped the question, Linda’s sister Marcia Eaton recalls.

Linda and Nathan married in 1980, but in 1981 Nathan was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer. He died just three years later.

Linda moved home, living with her mother Thelma Buxton on South Main Street. She immersed herself in family life, enjoying cooking family dinners, gardening, her nieces and nephews, sewing, reading and animals.

“She just put a lot of joy into our lives and our kids’ lives,” says Marcia. “She did a lot for all of us. We loved her to pieces.”

So in April of 2010 when it was clear that Linda had lost a considerable amount of weight, her loving family became worried and insisted she see her doctor.

Marcia, a nurse, took her to the doctor’s and heard the news she most feared. A CT scan found a lesion in her lung. While Linda had never smoked, or drank or even ate unhealthy, it was cancer and it had metastasized throughout her bones. There was nothing that could be done.

Linda did not want to know the results of the exam. Because of her experience with Nathan, she was afraid it was the “big C.” So for months, Marcia and her sisters Nancy Cassidy and Jean Hlady kept the awful secret.

But Linda grew thinner, lost her appetite and was so easily winded that she couldn’t make the short walk down the driveway to her sister Marcia and Nancy’s homes. The sisters knew they had to tell Linda the truth, so Linda’s doctor, Dr. Jonna Goulding, visited the family home one July day in 2010 to share the news.

Linda was “stoic,” says Marcia. She didn’t complain. But she did set forth some goals. She wanted to visit the Tunbridge World’s Fair, the Maine coast and the zoo in Boston. That summer, even though Linda was in a wheelchair and on oxygen, the family fulfilled those wishes as they formed some of their last memories together.

At the same time, they scrambled to retrofit a couple of ground level rooms in Thelma’s 1860 house to be accessible to Linda, who wanted to die at home. They applied for state assistance, were approved but the funds never came through, Marcia says.

The electrical needed upgrading to safely supply Linda’s oxygen, and the downstairs room to be occupied by Linda hadn’t been used in 50 years. It needed insulation and a ramp over a raised threshold. And a handicapped accessible bathroom was needed.

The family hired a carpenter and an electrician to do all but the bathroom, as that was simply too costly. A gift from the Last Mile Ride reimbursed them for some of the carpentry expenses.

“It was a tremendous help. Oh my goodness, yes,” says Marcia of the gift the family received. “It was a big plus. We just didn’t have the money.”

And money was the last thing they wanted to be worried about.

Linda was dying.

She developed skin issues. Her heart would race and she wasn’t eating until finally on Oct. 7 of last year she passed away quietly on the couch with her family at her side.

She was 64.

Robert Hoot

Born in Texas, Robert Hoot had a difficult upbringing. He spent years in an orphanage.

As an adult, Robert joined the U.S. Marines and then the Army National Guard. His son, also named Robert, recalls his father as a veteran, “true patriot” and an artist. He spent the last two decades in Barre before his declining health forced him briefly into the care of Four Season’s Community Care Home for the Elderly in Northfield and then Gifford.

A lifelong smoker, he had been diagnosed with lung cancer several years ago. Treatment hadn’t worked and Robert was dying. When he broke his hip this January, he declined rapidly. The fracture was inoperable and his cancer was in its end stage.

His son recalls talking to him on the phone just before Christmas when all was well. A month later, he was gone. The in-between was a scramble between Vermont where Robert was and Maine where his three sons, including the younger Robert, lived.

The younger Robert made the four-and-a-half drive from home, work, his wife and a newborn daughter in Maine to Vermont twice a week. “Financially, it was killing me,” he says.

It was an emotional strain as well. The concern was that Robert would die alone. “He wanted to go to Maine,” his son says. “He wanted to be by the ocean … when he died.”

Gifford palliative care nurse John Young got to work making that wish come true.

He found a hospice house near Robert’s sons in Maine. Initially it was full, but then a room opened up. It would take a costly ambulance ride to get there, however. A gift from the Last Mile Ride fund paid for much of the family’s out-of-pocket expense and on a snowy January day, Robert was bound for Maine.

If it weren’t for the money the family received and the hard work of Young, the younger Robert says the trip would never have been possible.

“John Young should be commended and recognized. He goes above and beyond what is expected of a hospice care nurse or any nurse. He was the person who really made this happen. I’m very, very grateful.”

The senior Robert died five days later on Jan. 24 at the age of 64. His sons were at his side, taking shifts to ensure he was not alone at the end.



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