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A Family Gathers

They fed each other small bites of decorated cake, smiled when they read the personal messages in the giant handmade card and enjoyed every moment with loved ones.

But for Warren and Gladys Rust of West Fargo, their 59th wedding anniversary celebration on Nov. 25, 2009, wasn’t quite what they expected. The celebration took place in Warren’s hospital room at the Palliative Care Unit (PCU) at Sanford South University Hospital in Fargo.

And it wasn’t just 82-year-old Warren’s room. For several days the room and the PCU became home for the entire Rust family: the place where they gathered, laughed, slept and wept; where they had last conversations with their beloved husband, father and grandfather; where every single member of the family held Warren’s hand to the very end.

“Someone was with him all the time. I feel so good knowing that,” says Gladys today. “The care he received was wonderful. Just wonderful.”

24/7 medical care

Since September 2009, Warren’s health had rapidly declined due to liver cancer. He took a fall a few months later, prompting an emergency room visit and a transfer to the PCU. His family joined him, including four grown children -- Peg (Seidel), Dale, Perry and Randy -- and their families.

“We didn’t know much about Palliative Care, but the minute we got here, we were all relieved,” says Perry. “We knew that whatever medical care was needed was one step away and it was available 24/7.”

Palliative care is a medical specialty that focuses on aggressive symptom management for people facing serious illness. PCU leader Dr. Preston Steen and all seven doctors who staff Sanford’s unit have received their board certification in palliative medicine.

These doctors work side-by-side with specially trained nurses, chaplains and social workers -- a closely knit team focused on providing compassionate, supportive care to patients and families. As the Rusts discovered, the right environment makes all the difference.

All-around comfort and support

Pain control was a top priority in Warren’s care. Shortly after he arrived at the PCU, he received an electronic device that allowed him to self-administer pain medication.

Says Randy: “We were all concerned that our father might suffer. We didn’t want him to go through that and I don’t think he did. The care was excellent.”

But Peg noticed it wasn’t just her dad’s comfort that was of concern -- but the family’s. “The nurses kept reminding us to go and eat because we’d forget,” she says. “Their caring went beyond what you’d expect.”

The family also appreciated the time allowed for questions and information. “Every day there was a care conference and the doctors and nurses would tell us exactly what was happening and what we could expect,” she says. “That in itself helped relieve some of the stress.”

They also found support from other families on the unit, their Caring Bridge website and music. Along with his passion for farming, hunting and fishing, Warren loved to sing. His favorite tenor was Daniel O’Donnell, whose songs played over and over again in the hospital room.

Second cousins even stopped by and gave a live vocal performance. “You’d be surprised what joy there can be, even at the end,” says Perry.

Good memories

When Warren passed away on Dec. 1, the whole family held hands around his bed.

They chose to stay afterward, helping wrap his body and transferring it to the gurney. Together they moved from the hospital room to the funeral home van -- the last steps of an entire PCU journey Dale now describes as “awesome memories at a tough time.”

Looking back, Randy says he has no regrets. “There are a lot of things you do in life and later you think, I could have done that differently. But that’s not true of our experience at Palliative Care,” he says. “There’s not a thing I would have changed.”

Today Warren’s family lives just as he would want them to: focusing on others, enjoying the moment and making memories. “He made good ones,” says Peg.

And his legacy? Peg once asked him what he’d want it to be and was surprised by the response. “All he could talk about was how wonderful our mom was. His answer was ‘Love your wife and everybody wins.’”

All laugh as they wipe their eyes. They miss him, but oh, so many memories…

Posted Date: April 2011