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Joy to the End

Judy Bergh describes her hospital room like it's home.

“That’s my office,” she says, pointing from her bed to the table that holds her calendar, notes, cell phone and family photos. She nods in the direction of vases with flowers -- the garden. “And over there? That’s the extremely important chocolate department. Make sure you take one.”

Judy rests comfortably in the Palliative Care Unit(PCU) at Sanford South University Hospital in Fargo.

“My five-star spa,” she says, but she knows her situation is dire. At age 60, she’s paralyzed from her chest down. The aggressive cancer will take her life.

Rapid and unexpected

Judy’s difficult journey started January 9, when a severe backache prompted a visit to the Sanford Emergency Room. She tried to walk in, but her legs had grown mysteriously numb.

Tests revealed a fast-growing tumor along her spine. Emergency surgery helped relieve the pressure, but within three days the tumor came back. She never again returned home to Dilworth, Minn.

“I’m grateful my oncologist Dr. (Shelby) Terstriep was honest with me. That helped me make an informed decision,” says Judy. “I realized my best option was right here in a place I’d never even heard of. Strange as it sounds, I feel fortunate.”

Patients take charge

Established in 2003, the eight-bed PCU offers the precise level of care for patients who need aggressive symptom management. Reasons may include stroke, lung disease, end-stage cancer, heart disease and others. Some patients transition home or to a nursing home, but others spend their last days here.

Esther Baker, clinical care supervisor, compares the PCU to an intensive care unit without the machines -- a place that surrounds patients and families with calmness, safety and security.

“Patients and families set the priorities for their care,” she says. “Judy is awake, alert and she’s her own decision-maker.” Her priorities guide the PCU's interdisciplinary team of specially trained doctors, nurses, social workers, chaplains and others.

Judy's noticed the team's humility. "Helping people make the transition from life to death is pretty profound, but all the people who work in this unit are so humble in their work," she says.

Comfort and peace

Symptom management for Judy’s pain and nausea has been critical. In addition to continuous pain medication, she’s benefited from massage, chaplaincy visits and gentle,careful positioning in her bed. “There must be 50 pillows around me,” she says.

But she’s comfortable, and she’s been lucid enough to take care of important issues such as arranging care for her 90-year old mother. She also found good homes for her three beloved pets. “They’re like children to me,” she says.

Judy has her spiritual home in order, too. On a torn corner of a newspaper she’s drawn a small hospital bed held up by two large hands with beams radiating all around. She’s written the words, “May God hold you in the hollow of his hand.”

A better day

Judy appreciates the question posed each morning by her care team: “What can we do today to bring you joy?”

Joys have included simple things -- her favorite cucumber-melon lotion, half-and-half in her coffee and music. She looks forward to once more hearing John Rutter’s “Gloria.” “It’s beautiful,” she says. She also appreciates visits from friends and family. Grown daughter Katie will arrive shortly.

So why with such precious little time left would Judy choose to share her end-of-life experience with strangers?

“I want people to know this place is here,” she says, her voice fading. “This is a place where you feel loved, safe and unafraid. This is where you rest and receive comfort that words can’t even describe. I know I’ll pass away soon, but until then this is a wonderful place to be.”

Judy turns her head toward the window. It’s a cold winter morning, but the east sun streams in.

“I used to be an outdoors girl,” she says dreamily. “That’s why I love this natural light. It’s one of many kindnesses that touch my life and make my days better.”

Posted Date: March 2011