Wayne Ivestor spent 26 years as a marketing representative for IBM before he retired in 1991 and began to explore what he would do with the rest of his life.
Eventually, the 49-year-old Columbia resident was drawn into an area that many people would prefer never to think about.
He began helping people who were dying.
By becoming a volunteer at the Hospice Service of Howard County, Mr. Ivestor moved from a world of high technology to a world profoundly spiritual, philosophical and emotional. Last week, he was present for the first time when a client died.
Mr. Ivestor and his experiences deserve mention not for any maudlin purposes, but because his story may help some people overcome their fears and perhaps, like Mr. Ivestor, reach out to those who are sick or dying in our community. There are many ways to do that, but hospice service is perhaps one of the least understood and most avoided.
Hospice service, which has its roots in England during the 1960s, debuted in the United States in 1974 in Connecticut. Four years later, the Howard County Hospice opened.
That is a long time for people to adjust to the idea of a service that accepts that death is imminent and attempts to make the remaining days of life as comfortable and fulfilling as possible. And yet misconceptions persist.
"Hospice is not about prolonging life," says Nancy Weber, director of the Howard County hospice. "Nor is it about euthanasia. We are not in the business of putting people out of their misery."
The people who come to hospice are terminally ill patients who a physician has determined probably will not live for more than six months. All attempts at a cure have been abandoned.
Hospice, through a team that includes the patient's doctor, a nurse, a volunteer, a social worker, a chaplain and a home health aide, tries to make the client as comfortable as possible and prepared for the inevitable.
Much of what they do is to provide assistance to the spouse and family of the client; a good deal of that is done by the volunteer.
Wayne Ivestor came to the hospice after looking around for a charity in which to get involved. Shortly after volunteering, he had a friend who was diagnosed with breast cancer and later died. Shortly thereafter, his mother and father, both in their 80s, also died.
His personal experiences with death and as a volunteer have given him a view on the subject that most people don't have to experience until the time comes.
His first advice is "don't be afraid."
"It's a peaceful place that the dying are going to," he says. "The thing I see is that the people who are dying are not as concerned about their passing as they are about the people they are leaving behind."
By helping the family cope with the pressure and grief of having a loved one die, hospice's goal is to assist the family and patient in accepting what is about to happen. Both the family and patient begin to let go. Sometimes this occurs within moments or hours of death.
On Sept. 19, Mr. Ivestor was present when a patient with whom he had worked for weeks died. The client was an elderly man with cancer. Mr. Ivestor spent hours with the man and his wife in their home as the moment of death approached.
"It wasn't depressing," he says. "It was tough at times. The Monday before he died was very rough for me because I couldn't make him comfortable. If you can't make a client comfortable and take away the pain, it's very rough emotionally."
Eventually, he found a way to provide comfort and when the end came, the man's wife and daughter were at his side. He left peacefully with his loved ones whispering softly in his ear.
"I thought there would be a very strange feeling about his dying," Mr. Ivestor says. "But it wasn't that way. It seemed like a very natural thing.
"They talked to him, said they loved him, that he would be fine and they would be fine," he recalls. "Then his breathing just became more and more shallow until he died."
After such an experience, Mr. Ivestor retreats to repair himself. He might ride his horses or go sailing or take a trip with his wife. In other words, he lives.
A lot of what death teaches us is how to live.
Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.