Trips revive old memories for terminally-ill patients
By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Norwich - posted Wed., Nov. 14, 2012
Elizabeth Heebner, confined to a nursing home because of poor health, knew her life was drawing to a close. She longed for a glimpse of some of the places she’d loved when she was young, but her daughter, untrained in emergency medical care, fretted about taking her out for a drive. “Mom, what if something happens?” she asked.
That’s where Hospice Southeastern Connecticut and American Ambulance stepped in. The two agencies recently began Sentimental Journeys, a collaborative effort to give elderly patients with a life-limiting diagnosis a chance to safely visit their old haunts and revive old memories.
Heebner, their first client, got the chance to enjoy a ride through Norwich in an ambulance, accompanied by a paramedic, an EMT and an aide from her assisted living home in Waterford. She enjoyed a ride down the streets where she had lived and worked as a young woman, and even stopped for some ice cream at the Dairy Queen.
“Her health was so fragile her daughter was afraid to take her out in the car,” said Peggy Mayo, LCSW and supervisor of counseling services for Hospice. When the door was opened and Heebner saw the colorful autumn leaves, “she took a big breath and said, ‘This is the first time I’ve been out in months.’ It was wonderful to watch how caring and gentle [the medical team] was with her.” After the ride, she said, Heebner’s daughter “felt relieved that her mom got to do what she wanted to do.” Heebner has since passed away, just a month after her trip.
Greg Allard, vice president of American Ambulance, said that the Sentimental Journeys idea originated in Colorado with a paramedic trying to fight off burnout. The concept came to Norwich via a local paramedic who read about the Colorado program in a professional journal. American Ambulance and Hospice staff worked out the protocols over the summer, and initiated the program with Heebner’s trip in October.
Ambulance staff members who wanted to participate received special training on issues related to living wills and do not resuscitate orders, Allard said. “There’s no cost to the patient or the families. This is a community service,” he said.
To be eligible for the program, the patient must qualify for Hospice care, with a diagnosis of six months or less to live, “but still be healthy enough to take advantage of [the trip],” said Jeffrey Nelson, director of community development for Hospice. “Our staff will talk with patients and if they sense there’s a wish, we’ll get in touch with American Ambulance.”
The turnaround time from signing the application to taking the trip can be as little as one day, depending on the patient’s condition and ambulance availability, said Mayo. While the trips are limited to the local area, the possibilities are myriad: a trip to church, to the beach, even a shopping excursion. Remembering important life events and sites one last time can be an important part of a Hospice patient’s closure process, said Nelson.
“In Hospice, people often have an agenda, [a need] to get that last work done,” said Mayo. When Heebner left for her trip, “she was all dressed up in her nicest clothes and had had her hair done. When she came back, everybody wanted to hear about her trip.”