Niland family carrying on ‘attitude of gratitude’ by joining Last Mile Ride
RANDOLPH – Connie Niland was a fearless optimist.
So even when her husband died of a massive heart attack on the day of his retirement, she carried forth with his plan to move from their home in Peabody, Mass., to Vermont.
Connie and her youngest daughter Lisa (now Lisa Hill of Bethel) moved to Barnard in 1972 when Lisa was 13 and Connie was 55.
In Massachusetts, Connie had offered guided tours of the North Shore for women, but mostly stayed home with her four children and played golf. In Vermont, Connie went to work as an administrative assistant first at Dartmouth College and then Vermont Law School. She also shoveled the roof, maintained the home and took care of Lisa and the family’s horses. The older children were already out of the house.
Connie worked until age 84 and then filled in on vacations. Lisa recalls her mom’s intellectually curiosity. “She just had this wonderful curiosity about people and ideas.” Connie loved the law school students and computer technology. She learned to Skype and text her older children. “She was as fearless as that as she was with other things.”
And she was fearless about death.
Lisa calls her mom a “buddhiscopalian.” She read incessantly about spirituality and a relationship with God.
In 2002, she moved from Barnard to an apartment in Randolph on Randolph Avenue, when the home became too much to take care of alone. “She really considered that she had moved from the country to the city,” Lisa says.
And Connie embraced her new community. She became active with the Randolph Senior Citizen Center, the Gifford Medical Center Auxiliary and began volunteering at Gifford. “My mother was just so grateful for Gifford and loved that it was such an important part of the community where she had chosen to live,” Lisa says of her local hospital.
Connie also continued to play golf into late 80s and was such an optimist that age 90 she took out a four-year lease on a car.
Eventually rheumatoid arthritis and limited mobility would cause her to stop driving, but still Connie lived well and with her constant “attitude of gratitude.”
She turned 94 on Christmas Eve last year. After a day of visiting with family and drinking a bit of champagne – one of Connie’s favorite – Lisa called to check in. “I’m just sitting here thinking about how lucky I am and how happy I am,” Connie told her youngest.
A few days after New Year’s she had a stroke.
On a whim, Lisa visited on New Year’s Eve day, a Saturday, with Connie’s monthly scratch tickets and her winnings from the previous month. “When I got there, she was out of it,” says Lisa, who brought her mother to the Emergency Department. She had a urinary tract infection but a CT scan revealed nothing else unusual.
Lisa stayed with Connie in Randolph over the weekend. They cooked, laughed and giggled, and had a great time. On Monday, the day after New Year’s, they enjoyed a nice lunch. After lunch, Lisa was rubbing lotion on her mom’s face and asking her a question, when Connie failed to respond. When she finally looked up, her face pointed to one side. “I literally had her face in my hands,” says Lisa, and “It was clear that she had had a stroke.” Lisa activated Connie’s Lifeline and awaited an ambulance to bring her to Gifford.
She didn’t get better.
“She clearly wasn’t progressing. It was just clear that she had a really devastating event,” says Lisa, who was faced with the decision of moving her mother to a nursing home.
That Friday, Lisa came to the hospital ready to do just that, but Connie, who “couldn’t stand” nursing homes, had made a different decision. She had stopped eating, was growing sicker and was moved to the Garden Room for end-of-life patients at Gifford.
She was there exactly one week until her death on Jan. 13 of this year. The whole family came, all four children, including two or three who stayed over every night, and almost every grandchild. The room, which includes a patient room and family room, was filled with 12 or more people at a time.
“My mother was very gracious and she loved to entertain. She had a steady stream of people (visiting her in the Garden Room), and we were loud. We sat with her and we talked about great times in our family’s life and we told the funny stories that we always told when we’re together,” Lisa recalls.
The family faced no difficult choices. Connie had made her wishes clear in “the most beautifully written Advance Directive.”
They brought her quilt from home and other comfort items were provided in a kit from the hospital. The hospital fed the family during their weeklong stay. Connie had Reiki for pain management as well as music therapy from Brookfield’s Islene Runningdeer and local hospice singing group “River Bend.”
Most importantly, says Lisa, the hospital staff preserved Connie’s dignity – an important measure for the family and for Connie who was foremost always a “lady.”
“That experience of being in the Garden Room and the support that we had was such a beautiful experience. It just was incredible to us how thoughtful everyone was,” says Lisa.
The special services Connie and her family received – the family meals, Comfort Kit and music therapy – were provided thanks to funds raised at Gifford’s annual Last Mile Ride – a charity motorcycle ride this year to be held on Aug. 18.
And this year, Lisa, her brother Richard and two friends will be participating in the Last Mile Ride for the first time.
“For us, it’s knowing what we received in the Garden Room, we want to make sure we give back a little of that so another family can have an island of calm in the middle of such chaos,” Lisa says. “Until you are there you have no idea how much you need and our family was just so overwhelmed with how much (hospital staff) did for us.”
The Last Mile Ride is supports end-of-life and advanced illness care at Gifford Medical Center, including free services for patients and their families. This year’s ride is Aug. 18. The event also includes a cyclist ride and 5K. Learn more online at www.giffordmed.org or call (802) 728-2380. Participants can register up to and on the day of the event.