Tom and Pat Purcell were awash in gratitude. A family member had survived a frightening cancer diagnosis, and they felt acutely aware of their good fortune. "We thought, 'What a gift we've been given, and what are we going to do now?'" Tom says. The answer came after they visited a friend at Seasons Hospice House in Rochester. "It was such a sunny place for people, so hopeful," Tom tells us. That's when "it hit us," Tom says. He and Pat agreed they'd become hospice volunteers. "We saw the sunshine we could bring to others by getting involved."
That was 19 years ago. In the years since, the Purcells have brought sunshine to hundreds of patients through their service to hospice at Mayo Clinic Health System in Austin, Minnesota. "We give companionship to people in their final weeks or months of life," Pat tells us. "The most important thing you can do is really listen. Let people know you're in it with them and that they're not alone. You need to have empathy. Hospice is about caring, not curing."
Tom and Pat deliver that care in a variety of ways. They read to patients and write letters for them, play cards and give wheelchair rides, and provide bereavement support to families grieving the loss of loved ones. Most importantly, they provide a human connection at a time it's perhaps most needed. "People want to know their lives mattered," Tom says. "They want to know they counted. What an honor to take those last steps with someone."
The Purcells — both in their early 90s — tell us the care they provide is as unique as the patients they care for. Tom has driven a man to see the landmarks of his life, written a history of a patient's service in the Lend-Lease program, and held a woman in his arms for a final dance. "She was elegant and proud, and cancer had gotten her down," Tom says. He'd lifted her up to help her to the bathroom, but with Glenn Miller's In the Mood playing in the background, Tom couldn't resist a detour. "I said, 'Let's dance,' and her spine straightened right up," he says. "We're there to give patients the best day that we can."
Even when that day is their last. Recently, a patient Pat had been visiting for several weeks was nearing death. The man's family was on their way from out of town, and a nurse asked Pat if she would extend her visit until they arrived. "I held his hand and talked to him," Pat says. She reminisced about his work life and hobbies, and prayed with him. When she asked if he'd save her a piece of birthday cake — they'd joked about celebrating their shared birthday together — he squeezed her hand. Not long after, he took his last breath. "You come home after volunteering and your faith is restored," Pat says. "You know you've made an impact on someone."
It's an impact she and Tom hope others will consider making, too. "We'd love to get more volunteers involved with hospice," she says. "It's a beautiful program and so needed."
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