Helping the dying find peace


When Ann Kennedy is asked to explain what she does for a living, she usually doesn't leave a dry eye in the room. She's a nurse, but there's nothing typical about her duties.

Kennedy helps her patients fulfill dying wishes. She isn't a one-woman wish foundation; instead, she helps patients get their affairs in order and resolve things so they can die peacefully. And she has a knack for it.

The families she works with thank her daily, and she has received awards for her compassionate care of dying patients. But after she tells her story, accolades seem inconsequential.

Although she has held positions at various hospitals for more than 45 years, she found her niche in her current position - support care coordinator at St. Joseph Medical Center, which she has held for about six years.

According to Sister Anne Patrice Hefner, vice president for mission and ministry, the position was a perfect fit for Kennedy.

"When the position first came up, I was delighted that Ann had gotten it," Sister Patrice said. "She has a mixture of a psychiatric background and a caring heart."

Kennedy got her start in psychiatric nursing working with patients at Seton Institute from 1959 to 1968.

"Seton was the only Catholic-affiliated psychiatric hospital in the state at the time," Kennedy said. "I was able to spend time with the patients and help them develop a plan for their discharge. Back then, the average stay was about one year. So I spent a lot of time with my patients, and I enjoyed that."

After a four-year hiatus to have children, Kennedy joined the staff at St. Joseph Medical Center, where she has held positions including staff nurse in psychiatric nursing as well as clinical nurse III, a position equivalent to a psychiatric nurse liaison.

Emotional load

"About six months before I took this job, a friend of mine who was a manager at St. Joseph's came down to my office to talk to me," Kennedy said. "She told me, 'I don't want sympathy or tears, I just want prayers. I have lung cancer.'"

The reality of her new job soon hit.

"I got a call to come to the E.R. for a patient," Kennedy said. "It was my friend. She had taken a turn for the worse overnight. The oncologist told me to tell her she was dying; he said he couldn't do it. So I told her. And at the same time, I'm thinking, 'I don't want this job.'"

Kennedy said she thought her job required that she be stoic.

"I sat with my friend and told her it was OK to die," Kennedy said. "I tried to force myself not to cry. My job was to be brave. She just would not let go. She had another friend who'd been to visit her, and it dawned on me that maybe she was waiting to say goodbye to this other friend."

Kennedy telephoned the woman, who lived out of state, and asked her whether she could return earlier than she had planned. "She got in her car and drove here. She arrived Tuesday. She spent all day with our friend, who died at 8 a.m. Wednesday morning," Kennedy said.

The visitor's husband called Kennedy and said, "I can't tell you what a gift it was that you did that," she recalled. Then he asked her how she knew what the dying woman was waiting for. Kennedy responded, "I didn't. I guessed."

For Kennedy, that was the accolade she needed to inspire her to continue with the position, and Sister Patrice said the hospital staff and chaplains are better for it.

"She's been a role model for the chaplains on dealing with the unique needs of dying patients," Sister Patrice said. "She's been able to bring awareness to the medical staff on the needs of those dying. She teaches us by showing us what the patients need. She created a volunteer program for people to sit with elderly dying patients so they don't have to die alone."

She spent the first three months researching and developing the end-of-life program, initiated by Catholic Health Initiatives in 1999, in five hospitals including St. Joseph's.

"I wanted to make the accessibility of the program easier for patients," Kennedy said. "I set up the program so that anyone facing end-of-life care or a life-threatening illness could get a referral from anyone, not just an attending physician."

After completing the guidelines for the program, she began working more with patients.

'Too valuable to lose'

One aspect of her job is getting hospice care for people after they leave the hospital. Sister Marion Schaechtel, Maryland province moderator of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, said Kennedy has established herself as irreplaceable in this regard.

"We had a sister who was dying, and we were unable to care for her at home," Sister Marion said. "St. Joseph's didn't have a hospice, so Ann helped me get her into one. She's helped us with this many times since then. She's very impassioned to help people who have no one else to help them. When the hospital thought of abolishing her job two years ago, I wrote a letter asking them not to, and they didn't. She's too valuable to lose."

Last wishes

Another important part of the patient care involved talking with patients to see how they want to live the remainder of their life.

"I had a physician come to me with terminal cancer," Kennedy said. "I asked him what he wanted to do during his final time. He said he wanted to go to West Virginia and finish building his home for his retirement. I made arrangements for him to go supervise the project."

Another patient was able to see her child marry.

"I had a cancer patient admitted to the hospital on a Thursday," Kennedy said. "Her child was getting married on May 22, and we didn't know if she'd make it until then. So I made arrangements for them to be married in the hospital chapel that Sunday."

Sometimes, Kennedy said, she can't grant their wishes in time, as was the case of an 80-year-old woman diagnosed with cancer.

"When I asked her what she needed, she said she wanted her children to bring her grandchildren to see her," Kennedy said. "I asked her why she thought they wouldn't. I talked to the children individually, and all but one agreed to visit her. No one told me why the two were estranged. I talked to him and talked to him until finally he told me he'd bring them on a Sunday. She died on Friday. If I had to do it all over again, I would have started with him."

Despite the enormous emotional roller coaster the job creates, Kennedy sees her position as a rewarding way to end her nursing career, spanning more than 45 years.

"It is a privilege to end my career helping people" at the end of their lives, Kennedy said. "It's such a privilege that they share this part of their lives with me."

According to Sister Patrice, the biggest reward Kennedy gets is when the family comes to her after their loved one has died and tells her she made it easier for them. Kennedy said that's the only recognition she needs.

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