Mike’s story: Everyone has a story to tell and a song to sing

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Hospice Nurse Mike Howard shares his story on Grief from the Other Side podcastMike’s journey to become a hospice nurse came later in life. While he calls himself a “talker,” Mike also takes the time to listen to his patients and their families and loves to hear their stories. In this episode of from our podcast Grief from the Other Side, he shares about the impact of COVID-19 on grieving, discusses the ways loss can be cumulative and explains the value of being authentic with individuals at end of life.

Click here to listen to Grief from the Other Side: “Mike’s story: Everyone has a story to tell and a song to sing”

Speaker 1:

Grief from the other side, where the bereavement experts at Chesapeake Life Center talk about living with loss, sharing stories of hope and resilience.

Amy Stapleton:

Hi. I am Amy Stapleton, Manager of Bereavement Services at Hospice of the Chesapeake in the Chesapeake Life Center, and I’m joined today with my colleague, Tammy Turner.

Tammy Turner:

Hey Amy, I’m Tammy Turner. I’m the Community Education Manager for Hospice of the Chesapeake. And today’s story is Mike Howard, and he is a nurse with Hospice of Charles County. So for those that might not know, Hospice of Charles County is an affiliate of Hospice of the Chesapeake. So down in Charles County, we have another hospice that is part of our organization. Mike has been a nurse for Hospice of Charles County, I believe he said, four years. So tell me a little bit about your interview with Mike, Amy.

Amy Stapleton:

I wish there was a way to convey to people, just the warmth that Mike has. We can’t quite do that in an audio file, but there is something about his presence, his warmth, his ability to really connect with people. And listening to him, I think the biggest takeaway is just really a recognition that he has that everybody does have a story to tell and a song to sing, and how priceless that is, not just at the end of people’s lives, but at any point in their journey to have someone take the time to really listen to them.

Tammy Turner:

Yeah. I thought that was interesting. And that he came to this part of his journey later in life. His experience as a nurse happened for him later in his career.

Amy Stapleton:

After he retired.

Tammy Turner:

After he retired?

Amy Stapleton:

So I love that. I got another 20 years or so, but I’m thinking, to just make that type of contribution at this time in your life, what a remarkable human being. And I’m excited for him to share his story with our listeners.

Tammy Turner:

Okay. Let’s take a listen.

Amy Stapleton:

I am delighted to be here today with Mike Howard. Mike is one of our nurses here at hospice of Charles County. And today I think we’re just going to learn a little bit about him and what he does here and what a difference he makes. So, Mike, would you start us off? Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Mike Howard:

Okay. My name’s Mike Howard, Amy, and thank you all for inviting me to do this. I appreciate it a lot. I am a registered nurse here, and actually, I have been here at Hospice of Charles County for about four years. A brief period I was away, but I came back and I’m glad I did. I came to nursing really kind of late in life. I graduated in 2017, so I’m fairly new to nursing, but I knew then that hospice was going to be my choice. And it has been my first love in nursing. I did work for some brief stints down at St. Mary’s Hospital on a telemetry unit and then on 3 Central. But for the most part, my experience has been here at Hospice of Charles County.

Amy Stapleton:

Wow. So I’m so curious, what late in life kind of prompted you to take on nursing?

Mike Howard:

I had been a paramedic here in Charles County, and that was back in the mid eighties. And it was when Maryland was really first getting into the national registry for EMTPs. And that experience just kind of kindled in me, this almost a love for medicine and for how the bodily systems interact with one another. And so I continued on with my career, my paying job. And when I retired about eight years ago, my wife said, “Well, what are you going to do?” I said, “Well, I don’t think I’m going to sit on the porch and watch the neighbors go to work.” So I decided, I think I’ll go to College of Southern Maryland and see if I can get in the nursing program. And I did. And I will tell you this, it’s one of the hardest things in life I’ve ever done, but at its conclusion and even to this day, I enjoy getting up to go to work. And I think that’s a big part of working, getting up and doing exactly what you want to do.

Amy Stapleton:

Yeah. Yeah. That says a lot about your character, and what matters to you. The people matter.

Mike Howard:

Oh, yeah. I’m a people person. That would actually get me in trouble when I was doing clinicals back in nursing classes. We were at the assisted living home down in Leonardtown, and I used to get in, quote, trouble. I would sit in there and talk with the residents, and we would just kind of have this big conversation going on. And I just enjoy talking to people, enjoy hearing what they say.

Amy Stapleton:

That’s something we share in common. I thought before I was a licensed professional counselor that I wanted to be a physical therapist. And back in college, I was doing an internship at Health South, and eventually got in trouble with my supervisor. She said, you’re not making anybody exercise. You’re making everybody tell you about their families. And I thought I should pay attention to that. So interesting what brings us where we are.

Mike Howard:

And I think that’s an integral part of being in the business that we’re all in, whether or not you’re a nurse, whether you’re a physician or a home health aid, or whether you’re a counselor, or whether you’re interviewing someone. You need to bring that to your job, that you’re going to listen to people.

Amy Stapleton:

Yes.

Mike Howard:

Especially people who are in the end of life, because my feelings are, is that we all have a story to tell. We all have a song to sing, and that some of the melodies might be discordant, and some of the words may be very harsh. But if you listen, you may very well learn something that you’re going to find useful for your patient or your patient’s family.

Amy Stapleton:

So kind of sorting through that, right?

Mike Howard:

Yep. Listening is a big part of this job.

Amy Stapleton:

Yeah. So you mention you came to this work, you were an EMT, is that right?

Mike Howard:

Yes, I started as an EMT.

Amy Stapleton:

And so I’m wondering what it’s like now. I mean, that was a pretty intense job, as well. You’re being called on the scene a lot of times, not knowing what you’re going to find. And sometimes it’s a matter of life and death, right? You’re there and your goal is to save that life.

Mike Howard:

Yep.

Amy Stapleton:

I’m wondering how that has shifted now that you’re in hospice and the goal’s very different.

Mike Howard:

Yeah, that’s correct. The goal is different. I mean, when you’re working out there as a paramedic or an EMT, you have protocols that you follow, that you put in place, that are going to provide immediate assistance to the person until you get them to the emergency department and turn their care over to that emergency department team. Your immediate job is to keep that patient alive and hopefully deliver them to the emergency department in better condition than when you found them. Here, you know that the progression of a terminal illness is going to result in the demise of the patient.

Mike Howard:

But with both jobs, I think, there’s a commonality in that the goal is to provide good care for the patient and the patient’s family. That’s something that, whether you’re out in the street as a paramedic or here at hospice, that’s your goal. I want to make sure that you have excellent care, that your family’s questions are answered, and that when this is over and done, that family can look back and say, we had a good experience with hospice. To me, that’s important, that a year from the passing of their loved one, they can say, I would recommend you do that. It’s very important, I think.

Amy Stapleton:

Yeah.

Speaker 1:

What is lost?

Amy Stapleton:

Were there earlier experiences in your life, either as a child or just in what you witnessed as a EMT, that really kind of shaped your impact of how you see grief and death?

Mike Howard:

Well, the earliest remembrance I had, I think, would probably be my father’s mother, my grandmother. She passed at a very young age. She was 54 years old. At that time, I was probably no older than about seven years. Now I remember very vividly being in the living room of a very small house we lived in, and my father getting a phone call. And that is the first time that I had ever seen him actually weep and cry. And of course at that age, you were realize that though there’s a death, but you can’t rationalize that this person is now gone. You’re not going to see him. You don’t have that thought process.

Mike Howard:

At the other end of the tunnel, I guess, would be my father’s passing about eight years ago. And I looked at that with a very different perspective. He was 92 years old. He had lived a very full life. He was a very caring person and he had demonstrated to my brother and I how you should live, which was very important. Not that… The loss is still the loss, but I think that with maturity, you realize that you can look back and you can say we have a lot of fond memories. So there’s a difference, I think, in the way you carry the grief. You still grieve. We all grieve when we lose somebody-

Amy Stapleton:

Yeah.

Mike Howard:

… to one extent or another.

Amy Stapleton:

Yeah.

Speaker 1:

What remains?

Amy Stapleton:

So I like that transition, just that loss is cumulative and we do carry all the losses we’ve ever witnessed, ever been a part of, ever experienced ourselves. How do you deal with that kind of cumulative impact of loss in your work?

Mike Howard:

Well, I think that I rely a lot on my faith to begin with. I do have a strong spiritual belief. I also like to look at how what I have done has impacted the patient and the patient’s family, so that when I do look back, I can say, did you do everything that you could do? And if I can say I did, that helps lighten that burden. It lightens the load so that you can say to yourself, I think I gave them everything that I could give them. And if you didn’t, you’d be honest with yourself and say, well, maybe I could have done this, or I could have done that. And you can add that to what you’re going to do for the next person you encounter, for the next family.

Amy Stapleton:

I’ve heard so often the last year and a half, how COVID and the pandemic has changed nursing. Not only the care that you’ve been asked to deliver time and time again in a shortage, honestly, of care, but all the protocols and processes and equipment and all the things that I’m so aware that many came into this work in this field and said, we had no idea this would be the reality we’re facing. What has being present and a nurse during COVID meant to you? How has it impacted either what you do, or how you think and feel about what you do and offer to people?

Mike Howard:

Okay. I think the first thing is that you have to realize that in order to help other people, you have to protect yourself. So you have to take those precautions very seriously. It’s not going to do your patients any good if you get COVID and then you’re taken out of the picture for an extended period of time. So being aware of where you are, being aware of who you are with, and taking those proper personal protective precautions is paramount. The second thing that I’ve seen with COVID, and I really think back to one of my patients who I had who was in an assisted living here locally. Very sharp. We used to sit prior to COVID, we would sit and chat. And as I said, I’m a talker, so we would talk.

Mike Howard:

After COVID really got going, and they began to isolate all these folks in these ALFs. They had to stay in their room. They couldn’t have anyone visit them. They couldn’t even eat outside of their room, but I would go in, and I could see her begin to decline. I could see that there was a spark that was going out because she had been very active with the folks that were in that building. One day I was sitting there talking to her and she said to me, “I feel so sorry for the people here that are having trouble with their memory.” And I said, why is that? And she said, “Because all they can remember is that their daughter or their son used to come see them, but now they don’t. But they can’t rationalize the fact that this is COVID. We’re having these lockdowns. All they know is nobody’s coming to see them anymore.” And I took that away and I was like, you know, she just taught me something.

Amy Stapleton:

Yeah. Yeah. That cost and that loss is very real.

Mike Howard:

Very real. COVID has not just been a disease that has robbed us of a lot of people and cost us a lot of money, it’s also broken up a lot of inner family relationship that we used to have. So it’s very… I’ll be glad to see all this, as we all will, in the rear view mirror one day.

Amy Stapleton:

Yeah. Certainly impacted how we grieve and the rituals around our grief, and just how-

Mike Howard:

Absolutely.

Amy Stapleton:

… we support and show up for one another.

Mike Howard:

Yeah. To not be able to have a proper funeral service, or to be able to gather together as a family and share that grief as a family unit is really hard on people.

Amy Stapleton:

Yeah.

Mike Howard:

It just makes that dying, that loss of that loved one all the much more worse.

Speaker 1:

What’s next.

Amy Stapleton:

So as someone who works with people at the end of their lives, what would you want to share about that experience or about loss or about what you’ve learned from them along the way?

Mike Howard:

Again, I would first say, listen to what your patient and your family have to tell you. Let them tell their story. And be honest, be honest with the families, be honest with the patient. I don’t mean be brutal. You have to use good judgment. You have to use common sense in how you’re talking to people. But let the families know that you’re a human being too. And we all share some of the same traits that are going to show up. Our religion may be different, and our ethnicities or our nationalities may be, our traditions may be different, but we can all relate to that loss of a loved one. And I would just say, let’s be open with them. Be supportive, be communicative. Let them ask the questions, and answer the questions as honestly as you can answer them.

Amy Stapleton:

Be real, be human.

Mike Howard:

Be real, that’s it.

Amy Stapleton:

Yeah.

Mike Howard:

That we all have that same hierarchy that we need of needs. And once we all realize that, I think we could open ourselves up and be more empathetic-

Amy Stapleton:

Yeah.

Mike Howard:

… to one another.

Amy Stapleton:

One of my dear friends always tells me, “When in doubt, be human.”

Mike Howard:

That’s right. I think that’s very, very good advice.

Amy Stapleton:

Yeah. Yeah. I once heard it say that there’s no greater honor than to listen to someone’s story. And certainly, I find that to be true.

Amy Stapleton:

Thank you for sharing your story with us today, and for sharing just a little bit about who you are and what you do and the difference I know that it makes. It’s good to be with you, Mike.

Mike Howard:

And thank you very much for listening to my story. Have a good day.

Amy Stapleton:

Take care.

Mike Howard:

You, too.

Speaker 1:

Grief from the Other Side podcast is made possible thanks to the generous support from the John & Cathy Belcher Institute. For more information on grief and loss services, visit chesapeakelifecenter.org, or call 888-501-7077.

 

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