In October 2021, 80-year-old Earl Hamlin had quadruple bypass surgery to repair sick sinus syndrome, a type of heart rhythm disorder that affects the heart's natural pacemaker, or sinus node, which controls the heartbeat. Earl's heart was in a regular a-fib-like rhythm, and he was not eligible for a pacemaker.
After surgery, he was weak and tired, could barely walk, and couldn't do anything alone. When he returned home, his symptoms continued to get worse. He passed out twice, and his wife, Cindy, called an ambulance and was rushed back to the hospital.
"I was in a panic and didn't know what to do," said Cindy. "I gave him round-the-clock care and kept up with the 23 medications the doctors had him on, but he continued to deteriorate. I called his doctors repeatedly, and by December of that year, they told him there was nothing they could do and recommended hospice. They believed Earl wouldn't make it past 8-10 days. Hearing the word hospice felt like a death sentence. We called our kids and siblings and told them to come home and say goodbye. It was horrible."
After being referred to hospice, Katie Kilbane, RN and case manager at Lutheran Hospice, reviewed Earl's chart and went to their house to meet him.
"He was incredibly weak from his surgery because it takes a long time to recover," said Katie. However, I believed that we could assist and lessen the chance of imminent death."
Cindy stopped all of Earl's medications, and the doctors they had been working with refused to take Cindy's calls, but Katie never gave up.
"She was like a godsend," said Cindy. "I could reach her any time of the day, and she continued to do weekly home visits to check on Earl. It was the first encouragement we had had since his heart surgery. She answered all our questions, making us feel at ease and like we weren't alone. She gave us great advice but stressed that decisions regarding Earl and his health were ultimately up to us."
Earl began slowly progressing in the following months. He could walk up the stairs, go to the grocery store and accompany Cindy to pick up their grandkids from school.
"I suggested that we reset the clock and focus on small goals one day at a time. I wanted to empower them not to be afraid and teach them tools to help them live happy lives. When you work with a patient in hospice, you're working with their caregivers and family too. Cindy had a lot of anxiety because of how fragile Earl's condition was, and she spent her days and nights checking his vitals and oxygen levels, which takes a toll."
Katie also taught them how to work within the means of Earl's disability and health limitations. She taught them how to be grateful for their time with him and enjoy life again.
"One of the biggest things hospice taught us was that we all needed to stop what we were doing and enjoy our lives as best we could," Cindy said. "Before Katie came into our lives, I was exhausted and scared. We couldn't do anything because we were worried if we stopped giving him medication when he needed it, his heart would beat out of his chest, and we would lose him."
"It's a huge win when a patient who thought he was going to die is still here a year later and is enjoying life," said Katie. "My goal is to meet each patient and family where they are, and hospice has been my calling to do that. There's so much fear upfront, and people are surprised when they discover hospice is a place of comfort and an opportunity for many to regain control of their lives. We empower them to do this challenging job and walk with them on that journey. I feel like I become a part of their family, and nothing is more fulfilling than that."
"I cannot thank Lutheran hospice enough for what they've done for our family," Cindy said. "It was difficult keeping up with everything until hospice came in and simplified the process for us. I'm confident Earl wouldn't be here if it hadn't been for hospice."