In hospice, we don’t have anything to sell other than the services we provide. We don’t make a product; we don’t offer goods or trade. What we offer is love and care to people who are dying, and to their loved ones.
Generally, the first order of hospice business is relieving someone’s physical suffering; we give them morphine and the pain (hopefully) goes away. It can be more challenging to relieve someone’s spiritual and emotional suffering. Put it all together: You have a dying person in pain, struggling with the unanswerable question, “Why me?” and a family fractured with grief and in spiritual anguish. The sum of all these is human suffering, not just a health crisis, and it’s our calling to ease it by caring for our fellow beings, empowering them to live their lives fully until they die.
When people speak of hospice and the gallant work they do, who do you think they’re talking about? For me, it’s Melanie Collins. Melanie is simply the walking embodiment of what the ancient word “hospice” was meant to express: a way-station for weary travelers in need of comfort and tender, loving expert care on their final journey in life.
Melanie first came into my life 30 years ago. We were searching for that one nurse who could offer tender, loving expert care to dying people in Putnam County of rural north central Florida – and she appeared as if from the heavens. I have never met anyone like Melanie before or since. There was nothing you could put in front of her that she was not willing to tackle. Her focus was always on meeting the patients’ needs first, and she did everything with a smile. She would take call in the middle of night and drive to the most out-of-the-way places to relieve a patient’s suffering and to make sure the family had what they needed. This was back in the days before cell phones, and she kept a stack of quarters in the car so that she could stop at the nearest payphone to call in about her patients
Managing Melanie was an adventure – although in retrospect, I think it was really Melanie who was managing the rest of us. In those early days of hospice when we sometimes were writing the rules as we went along, it was often Melanie who would forge ahead to do what was needed first, then find a way to pay for it or to ask for permission after the fact.
We would say, “No, Melanie, we can’t see that patient because they don’t fit the admission criteria”. She would reply, “But they really need us and I know that we can help them and I’ll only be in there a little while…” and gently but surely overrule our vetoes. She met every challenge with a smile and a laugh and a prayer; her values and her actions were at all times in harmony and she helped us to be better people just by knowing her. Melanie’s character and virtues never waivered from the day I met her. Her faith, her family, her friends, and her work all received her dedication, respect and faithfulness, kindness and joy.
Dedicated hospice workers can never do it alone. Melanie’s entire family was a part of hospice; her husband and then young children supported her to do this sacred work and they have been hospice workers too, as much any employee could be. I thank them for supporting her to live out her vocation, her ‘calling’. Her work these many years was not simply a career, it was indeed a ‘calling’ and in her retirement, I’m sure she will continue to find ways to serve on her own terms, which will be expansive and beyond the limiting proscriptions of Medicare rules and regulations.
One of the most profound lessons I ever learned, I learned from Melanie Collins. Growing up, my family generally was not comfortable saying the words “ I love you” to one another. Not surprising, then, that in my youth I had the notion that “love” was strictly confined to romance, and that those three words were to be saved for a few special people. It was as if I’d been allotted a bucket of “ I love you”s, and if I used too many, I might run out.
Then I ran into Melanie Collins. As we begin our work together Melanie would occasionally say, “I love you Ms. Patti”, then go on about her work. At first, I felt uncomfortable having a woman who worked for me saying those three special words that were to be used only on the rare occasions; but she was expanding my understanding of the word “love”. Melanie’s ease and grace in sharing what was in her heart, no matter who she was with, gave me the courage to begin to say those words, too. I can vividly remember the first time I was speaking to my parents over the phone and ending the conversation by saying, “ I love you”. And low and behold, I heard those three special words returned to me in their voices. What a gift! And it all began with Melanie Collins.
So to you Ms. Melanie, congratulations on 30 years of serving those in need, relieving suffering, empowering people and spreading the love. I love you Ms. Melanie!
Image Above: Ms. Melanie sitting in her favorite chair at her retirement party in Palatka, FL