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Hospice nurse offers personalized end-of-life care

People live very different lives, with different family dynamics, jobs, interests and pastimes. There is one thing all lives have in common, though — they all, eventually, end. BJC Hospice’s mission is to help patients, no matter how different their circumstances, live their final days as fully and as comfortably as possible and support each family, not only through the end of their loved one’s life, but also through the grieving process.

Patient care supervisor Holly Wamser, RN, had three very different patients in spring 2017. But their families all say Wamser provided care that met their specific needs and helped them make it through difficult times. 
Here are their stories:

The Lewins
Steve and Judy Lewin were devoted to each other. An active couple with three sons and four grandchildren, they spent as much time together as possible. 

Judy loved writing, so Steve treated her to a week-long writing class in Paris. An avid researcher and genealogist, she published two novels — one about a woman wrestler set in 1952 and another about a woman inheriting a ’50s-era boat dock on a real Mississippi River island. 

She was working on her third book, about genealogy, when on Dec. 9, 2015, she was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer that spread to her heart, brain, lungs and bones. Caught off-guard by a monstrous disease, the Lewins eventually enlisted BJC Hospice’s assistance to help them take on the mountain of decisions they faced. 

Both Lewins bonded immediately with Wamser, Judy’s provider. 

“Holly was there every day,” says Steve Lewin. He gave her the nickname “Hospice Holly.”

He had moved his bed next to Judy’s hospital bed, so he could spend as much time with her as possible, holding her hand, talking and sharing memories of their life together. Judy maintained her sense of humor until she fell into a coma.

She never regained consciousness and died peacefully at home March 2, 2017, surrounded by family. 

“I cannot express my appreciation enough for the remarkable, awesome people who helped us through this rough time. We shared a lot of humor, even though the situation wasn’t humorous,” says Steve Lewin. 

“This was such a hard thing to do, but Holly really, really prepared me. BJC hospice staff are all such touching, special people.”

The O’Neals
John O’Neal lived an active and healthy life. Or so he thought. 

He loved golf and fishing. He was a great storyteller and very funny. He went to Mass every morning and met his buddies afterward at McDonalds. He loved to dress up to take his wife, Mary, out. He loved being with his family — three children and three grandchildren.

John was “best buddies” with the young grandson the couple watched after school. As soon as he walked through the front door, he’d go running to the grandpa who made toys and gladly played with him. John was equally fond of his two granddaughters who live in Kansas. 

In December 2016, John became one of the more than 3,000 Americans diagnosed each year with mesothelioma — lung cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. At first, John was in denial. But as a young man, he had worked as a paint contractor and metal processor after a stint in the military. He had likely been exposed sometime during this period. 

Because they had always been very private, the O’Neals were hesitant about hospice care at first. But Wamser immediately made them feel comfortable. 

After John was referred to BJC Hospice, Mary called Wamser’s number on a Sunday, expecting to make an appointment for the following day.

“Holly came right over that Sunday,” says Mary. “It was fantastic.” 

BJC Hospice’s Bernie Shore, MD, also was a helpful source for the O’Neals, says Mary. When making house calls, Dr. Shore would chat, intertwining serious information with the small talk. It was a comfortable way to discuss difficult topics, she says.
John O’Neal tried to hold on to as much of his former independence as possible, even as he became sicker. Wamser gently helped him make accommodations. For instance, John wanted to be able to get to the bathroom on his own, but Wamser was afraid he would fall out of bed. She finally convinced him to get a hospital bed (although he complained that he didn’t like it “because it’s blue” after it was delivered). 

One day, he gathered what energy he had left to run errands with Mary. After breakfast together, they went to a store, the bank and to get a watchband for Mary’s watch. That night, he insisted on taking Mary to Longhorn Steakhouse for one last dinner out together. 

Occasionally, during Wamser’s visits, John would tell her he had to leave his room to “go downstairs for a minute.” He returned to his bed after a little while. Wamser was puzzled, but she didn’t ask what he was up to. She and Mary soon found out.

John died with his family and Mary at his bedside on June 3, 2017 — one day shy of their 51st wedding anniversary. 
Shortly after, Mary began finding notes from John around the downstairs of their house. They had been planted during Wamser’s visits, by John. 

The Boals
Jim and Carol Boal’s journey to St. Louis was a scenic one. They met in Turkey in 1971, where Carol was a nurse on a mission trip and Jim was a teacher. Both were there with the United Church of Christ, who ran three schools, a hospital and a publishing house in Turkey at the time. 

They began dating and eventually became engaged.

After a brief stay in Ackley, Iowa, in 1972, to get married in Carol’s hometown church, the couple returned to Turkey for two more years. During a sabbatical in Greely, Colorado, where Jim got his master’s degree, the Boals’ daughter, Ann, was born. During the following five-year stint in Turkey, the Boals had their son, Paul. 

In 1980, the Boal family moved back to the States, to Casper, Wyoming, where Jim found a job teaching high school science and Carol became an elementary school nurse. They settled in, working and raising their family.

After retiring, Jim and Carol moved to St. Louis in 2015, where both their children had settled with their families. 
Then, in early 2017, Carol was diagnosed with lung cancer that spread rapidly to her bones and brain. As a nurse, she knew her prognosis wasn’t good, and when the medications stopped working, she declined further chemotherapy and decided to go on hospice care. Jim wanted to bring Carol home for as long as he could. Holly Wamser became Carol’s nurse. 

Jim was relieved to be able to rely on Wamser through Carol’s last days. 

“No question was too big or too small,” says Boal. “Holly always told me, ‘We are not giving up; we are moving on.’ It was such a comfort and reassuring.” 

Every step of the way, Jim stayed by Carol’s side and helped care for her, managing her many medications. Although he never complained, he found that making sure Carol took the right medicine at the right time was very stressful. Eventually, Carol was admitted to a long-term care facility, with BJC Home Care social worker Liz Turner arranging a seamless transition into a facility that could manage Carol’s medications and promote her comfort. 

Carol died peacefully on June 2, 2017. 

Jim is grateful for the care she and the rest of the family received from Wamser and other BJC Hospice staff members.
“I would highly recommend BJC Hospice to anyone. They are phenomenal,” says Jim. “They supported me and my kids when we needed them the most. Holly was really there for us. When she said she would call or come by, she always did, coming by more than calling.

“The staff have been amazing and are special people to do what they do for others — when we all know the end game.”

For more information or to volunteer for BJC Hospice, call 314.872.5050, or email [email protected].

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