Hospice Worker Lends a Helping Hand Before it's Time to go
MTSU/Seigenthaler News Service
Anne Van Curen is no friend of death, but the Maryville woman has spent much of her working career as a hospice nurse helping people to die with dignity and compassion.
Even so, she still finds herself explaining to families what hospice means. Many families equate “hospice” with last days, giving up.
“I wish more people understood hospice because the name scares people. Really hospice gives people hope. We are here, we are available for end of life and support,” said Van Curen, who despite working in a job that keeps her close to death, she exudes positivity with a face that often shows smile lines beneath a thick bob of ashy blond bangs curving above her eyebrows. Sitting at her desk on the bottom floor of Blount Memorial Hospice, she’s surrounded by mementoes of her 25 years as a hospice nurse, a few potted plants and a wooden sign that offers the admonishment, “Go take a hike.” Hiking, actually, is her hobby.
And her socks. She’s known by colleagues and by patients for her silly socks. Today’s socks are brought to you by the Eiffel Tower in hues of pink and violet.
She grew up in Maryville and attended Carson-Newman University for nursing school. After graduation she worked at hospitals for 15 years in various states when she learned her father and brother were both very ill. Both were under hospice care. Van Curen was impressed by the hospice nurses as they helped her relatives. The experience “touched my heart.”
And changed her life.
She decided she wanted to help families the way the hospice nurses helped hers. In 1994, she began working at Blount Memorial Hospice, which is an extension. Today, the corps of hospice nurses visit over 100 patients, mostly in Blount County and also parts of surrounding counties.
Van Curen calls her work “the ministry of hospice.”
“Being able to keep a family member at home when they are towards the end of life and being able to push that hospital bed up against a picture window that they love so much, so they can see the birds, the bird-feeders, and neighbors coming over to visit. Just knowing that you are helping make that happen and being the support for the family is a huge sense of being in the right place at the right time,” she explained.
Van Curen said families are often unaware of what hospice can do, such as getting a hospital bed ordered, or sending in “the bath girls” to help with bathing, or providing emotional support through social workers. When they’re told, she said, families often have tears rolling down their faces, overjoyed to have the help at such an emotional and tiring time.
Her patients who were veterans are near to her heart.
“Veterans die differently,” she said. “They are trained survivors, so when it comes to the end of life, it’s hard for them to let go.”
One of her patients was a World War II veteran with dementia. He was convinced in his mind he was still on active duty and this left him restless. She asked two volunteer hospice workers who were still in service to visit this veteran in their military uniforms. Their mission: to give a certificate of appreciation to the veteran and, Van Curen said, to tell them “We are here to relieve you and take your place.”
After that, the veteran was relieved and slept better that night than he did any other night. He died peacefully about a week later, she said with a knowing nod.
Van Curen said she’s always learning from her patients.
For instance,there was the patient who always had the same question/statement for her.
“So, how are you choosing to live today? You realize every day's a choice.” Van Curen recalled reaching for her notebook and pen. Another gem from this patient: “We don’t want to wait till we are dying to begin living, we need to live today.” This is one of Van Curen’s favorite stories and she continues to think about that woman every day when she wakes up and is reminded of those quotes.
Many patients and families have made an impact on Van Curen’s life but she’s made an impact on her patients and their families, as well.
Two years ago, Madeline Cavanagh’s husband died under hospice watch.
“I think hospice is the best thing ever and that people should not hesitate.”
The Maryville woman explained how hospice is not just for the person who is sick but for the caregiver. “I could not tell you,” she said, taking a breath to control her emotions, “how much they provide for the person who is dying, which in turn relieves the caregiver. I mean they came in and took care of anything he needed.”
Cavanagh said Van Curen and other hospice nurses visited her in the days after her late husband’s death just to check on her. “It was very professional.”
Van Curen’s current job is to coordinate the work of hospice volunteers. By law, she said, “Five percent of our patient time needs to be with volunteers.”
However, she still remains “on call” on certain days of the month. She loves building connections with patients and their families, such as the family where the children of a ill mother called to play a song they had written for their mother as a Mother’s Day present.
Van Curen is honored that she is treated like part of the family.
“It humbles you. When you are in a home three times a week for a year, you just get to know the patients, and their stories weave a place into your heart. That’s really what’s kept me here.”
Savannah Odeneal is a Middle Tennessee State University journalism student. She is in Blount County as part of a feature writing class called the Road Trip Class.