Hospice nurse puts faith at the forefront of comforting patients

| October 22, 2015 | 0 Comments
Our Lady of Peace in St. Paul offers care for patients suffering from terminal illnesses. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Our Lady of Peace in St. Paul offers care for patients suffering from terminal illnesses. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Tom Cassidy says he has his mother to thank for his 27-year career with Our Lady of Peace in St. Paul.

Despite being on the accounting track for the two years he studied at then-College of St. Thomas in St. Paul, it was caring for his mother in her St. Anthony home while she was dying from cancer that led him to his long tenure of caring for people like her.

Tom Cassidy

Tom Cassidy

“I would try these different jobs, and nothing seemed to click,” recalled Cassidy, a parishioner of St. Joseph in Lino Lakes. “I think my mom had a hand in this somehow — helping people who are dying.”

Cassidy, 56, started as a nursing assistant at Our Lady of Peace in 1988, four years after his mom died from ovarian cancer and when the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne still operated the facility that provides home hospice, home health care and free end-of-life care for children and adults. Although his starting wage was $4.50, he said initially, the sisters made the job worthwhile.

“Just getting to know the Dominican sisters, I kind of knew right then and there that this is where I wanted to be,” he said. “They had that sense of peace. I have the best of both worlds here. I’m working my faith and my job — they’re both connected.”

Now a registered nurse, Cassidy sees hospice patients with a variety of terminal illnesses at Our Lady of Peace Home, a 21-bed nursing home that is in the process of being certified as a hospice residence.

“People come in here knowing they’re going to die, and they’re going to die here,” Cassidy said. “But I just do my best to try to comfort them spiritually, emotionally and physically so that they can have a peaceful death.”

By definition, a hospice patient is given a prognosis of six months or less to live. An average stay for a patient is two weeks. Cassidy said most people want to stay home as long as possible and come to the facility when the family can no longer care for them.

Cassidy, a husband and father of four, saw his mother suffer through the pain of her cancer.

“There was one night — her last night at home — [when] we were able to give her a Vicodin every four hours as needed, but I didn’t want her to wake up, because every time she woke up she was in so much pain,” Cassidy said. “But being able to comfort her, just holding her hand and being next to her was important.”

All staff members at Our Lady of Peace try to add dignity to the end of each patient’s life, Cassidy said. Sometimes that’s through a soak in the Whirlpool, a walk outside or helping them live out their last days as they wish. For one patient, that meant attending Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer’s wedding. This man in particular stands out in Cassidy’s mind.

Despite his grim prognosis, “he was a very outgoing and positive person,” Cassidy said. “He’d get up every day and do things and have visitors. He didn’t beleaguer the point of having a terminal illness. He lived life to the fullest.”

The man died a few days after attending Mauer’s wedding.

For the patients who haven’t accepted their state, Cassidy talks to them about their lives and experiences.

“One of the greatest difficulties is seeing people in pain and their families in emotional distress,” said Cassidy, adding that it’s especially difficult when the patient has young children. “A 38-year-old man recently died here. When you’re a parent, you expect your kids to outlive you. That’s the way it should be.”

A pastoral care minister also is on staff.

“I think when some people think about hospice facility, where patients come to die, it’s all sad and gloomy, but it’s not,” Cassidy said. “We have laughter with the patients and their families, [and] we have different activities. I’m just confident that when patients come here, we can give them the treatment they need. We treat not only the patient, but also their family.”

For more information about Our Lady of Peace Home, visit OurLadyOfPeaceMN.org.

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