Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Not Always About the Rescue

The two voices did their best to fill the nearly empty ward with song, “Jesus loves me loves me still, though I’m very weak and ill.” Sniffling, dim fluorescent lighting, and a single patient. “From his shining throne on high, comes to watch me where I lie.”

Yolande Dalencour, 88, came aboard the USNS Comfort shortly after the earthquake, accompanied by her maid Nagela Albere and suffering from a femur fracture caused by falling debris. She quickly became the "mame"—grandmother-- of her ward, spreading her own brand of cheer to patients and staff alike. Nurses noted that she developed a liking for ice cream and Mountain Dew.

Last week tragedy struck: Dalencour suffered a massive stroke that left her comatose. By the evening of Friday, February 19, nurses did not expect her to live through the night. Staff began to plan a small gathering to give all those whose lives she inspired a chance to say goodbye.

Before the service, ward nurses carefully changed the bed sheets around their patient. Like a pair of athletic socks, white bandages hugged skin as fragile as Kleenex, from ankle to knee. Even with closed eyes, smile lines defined the upper half of a delicate face framed by a clear oxygen tube. The two chaplains paged through their hymnals. “We should do ‘Abide with Me’,” said chaplain John Franklin.

“The two greatest things that you can do as a health care provider are to deliver a child and to help someone have a comfortable death,” said Project HOPE volunteer Anne Borden, assigned to a patient care ward aboard the Comfort. She tells of how touched she was to see the outpouring of attention that Dalencour received after the stroke.

Borden participated in a Geriatric and Palliative care nurse residency program at Massachusetts General Hospital where she is an RN. “In these situations, it’s not about the rescue, the save-- it’s about something different.” She and the Navy nurses worked together to find an unoccupied ward for Dalencour, and with the chaplain’s office to have the service. “You try to make the nicest environment you can: lower the lights, play soothing music.”

The two voices soon became four, then more. Borden noticed that Dalencour’s breathing pattern changed during the singing. Visitors began to pour in to say goodbye. Nurses, corpsmen, translators. Borden put a hand on Albere’s shoulder as she covered her face with a paper towel. A prayer began.

“Yeah though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil.”

The service ended but Albere remained by the bedside, slowly stroking Dalencour’s forehead and saying goodbye.

Story and photos by photojournalist and HOPE volunteer, Allison Shelley.

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