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Hospice patient scores sweet seat in Blues suite

On Feb. 23, the St. Louis Blues notched an overtime victory against the Boston Bruins. No one at the game that night enjoyed it more than Tom Herberger.

While the win was sweet for fervent Blues fan Herberger, what he really savored was being able to share the evening with 15 family members and friends as guests of the St. Louis Blues. He knew it probably was the last time they’d all be together.

Herberger was a BJC Hospice patient, and the hospice Party Patrol made the Blues game outing happen. As part of BJC Hospice’s Joyful Celebrations program, Party Patrol volunteers plan memorable days for Hospice families when they see a need.

In the driver’s seat

Herberger retired from Auto Tire as a certified ASE technician after 35 years. He loved fishing, hunting, sports, tinkering with cars, and haggling to get the rock bottom-dollar price.

In the fall of 2016, Herberger started noticing that swallowing, especially meat and bread, was becoming more difficult, so he went to the doctor. After an endoscopy and biopsy, he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in December 2016.

Additional tests and scans showed masses on Herberger’s kidney, lung, adrenal gland and in some lymph nodes. Biopsies confirmed that he had esophageal and renal cancer in multiple sites throughout his body.

Treatment kept the cancer in check and Herberger functioning until early 2019, when he finally entered hospice care. It wasn’t an easy decision for him or his family to accept — at first. But the BJC Hospice staff met Herberger and his family “where they were,” and geared their care to make sure the Herbergers felt in control.

“The wonderful clinical staff, specifically his nurse Kim Roderique, did so much for dad on this journey,” says Herberger’s daughter Tiffany Snipes. “Kim has demonstrated so much compassion, sharing stories and advice to dad and our family about what to expect and what’s recommended to ensure he’s comfortable.

“Sometimes dad wasn’t ready for certain care measures, and Kim allowed him to be in the driver’s seat to make decisions when he was psychologically ready. Kim always communicated what to expect five steps from where we were so that we were mentally prepared for what was next.”

Upon first meeting the family, BJC Hospice and Home Care social worker Cyndi Williams, LMSW, saw the severity of Herberger’s decline. Getting to know him, Williams’ heart was warmed by Herberger’s concern over his wife and daughters, rather than himself.

Herberger told her he’d worked hard all his life, providing for his family, and he worried about how they’d be once he was no longer there. Williams provided resources to ease his mind and to help the entire Herberger family.

“Cyndi Williams was so incredibly helpful to connect us with resources and provide counseling and advice when our family, or dad, needed it,” says Snipes. “In particular, Cyndi shared some wonderful ideas and advice for how to grieve. Her words and wisdom have been invaluable.”

The family also worked with BJC Hospice’s Lumina project, which helps patients preserve the stories, values, ideals and experiences that define their lives. Lumina volunteers Jamie McCoy and Monica Sharp spearheaded remembrance projects so the Herbergers could preserve Tom’s legacy. The projects included a teddy bear made from his shirt for his grandson, a genealogy map of the family, a slideshow of photos with music picked by Herberger to play at his celebration of life, letters to the family for opening after his death and an “ethical will” sharing Herberger’s advice and wisdom.

A special outing

As the illness took its toll, the family wanted to do a special outing for Herberger, not knowing how long he had. He was too sick to travel, but they mentioned to the Joyful Celebrations planners what a passionate Blues fan he was. Williams, BJC Hospice volunteer Christy Cooke and the Party Patrol got busy and put things in motion.

The Blues suite was donated by Washington University orthopedic surgeon Lukas Zebala, MD; the Blues suite manager donated the food and beverages; and all the family had to do was rent a wheelchair-accessible van and invite guests.

On the day of the game, the Blues arranged for a meet-and-greet with two of the Blues’ all-time greatest players: center Bernie Ferderko and defenseman Bob Plager. There were smiles and fist bumps all around. Next, Herberger was escorted to the KMOX radio box to listen and talk on the radio during the first period.

“What a treat,” Herberger said.

And then, the spectacular win.

Herberger was on cloud nine all day and into the next.

Preparing for the journey

Tiffany Snipes and her family learned that hospice is more than “helping a patient die.”

“I’ve learned that death doesn’t have to be a grim and dim experience,” she says. “It’s about helping our loved one gracefully and gently transition to the end of their life. It’s a beautiful experience with help from the compassionate, caring, supportive, wise and wonderful hospice people who have chosen this emotional and difficult calling.”

The BJC Hospice team, Lumina volunteers and Party Patrol members made a difference in the lives of the entire family by letting them know they’re not alone during a difficult time, she says. “Without a doubt, our family has been truly blessed by these angels, and we couldn’t thank them enough,” says Snipes.

Tom Herberger died, surrounded by his family, March 2. For information or to volunteer for BJC Hospice, contact Mary Lindsley, 314.953.1671 or email [email protected].

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