Hospice, a medical practice largely funded by Medicare, is for those who are no longer trying to cure their illness, those whom a doctor has verified as expected to die in six months or less.
But sometimes you don’t have six months.
Take Topekan Michael Murphy.
“In February, his doctor said he had about a month,” said his daughter, Brenda Kelsey. “It was just about spot on.”
Michael Murphy’s fight with cancer was much longer than a month. He knew something was wrong as early as 2014. The then-60-year-old had a persistent pain in his back. After biopsies and second opinions, the diagnoses came down: renal cancer.
While renal cancer can have a survival rate of 80 percent if caught early, Murphy’s cancer had spread, requiring aggressive, debilitating treatment, expensive medication and side effects that required medication themselves. After a few rounds of failed treatments, he said enough was enough.
“He wanted quality of life over quantity,” Kelsey said. “He had a brother who fought colon cancer, a sister who had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, who fought it for seven years. … He wanted none of that.”
As the director of auditing for the Kansas Department of Education, Murphy had planned to retire to a life of golf, spending time with his grandchildren and his wife of four decades, and continuing to volunteer as a scorekeeper and statistician for Hayden Catholic High School. As a year wore on — and the treatments failed, and the tumors returned — his primary concerns were for the kind of life he would lead, with or without treatment.
“He talked to his general practitioner and said, ‘If I do the pills — the expensive pills — they want me to take, how often can I golf or do volunteer work?’ Basically, the answer was, ‘Maybe, once in a while?’ ” said Murphy’s wife, Colleen Murphy.
By the end of 2015, Murphy decided to seek palliative care through Stormont Vail Health, opting for what he hoped would be better — if not more — time.
Brandy Ficek, a palliative medicine physician at Stormont Vail, said she sees patients facing similar choices every day.
“Our patients may not be dying in the next six months, but in the future they will have hospice needs,” Ficek said.
Part of palliative care, she said, is starting conversations early on about what each patient wants their last few years of life to look like and to help their family understand their decisions.
“We had to realize that it wasn’t Dad giving up,” Kelsey said. “It was about doing it on his own terms.”
Michael Murphy continued to spend time with his grandchildren. He helped his grandson catch his first fish. He continued to score and keep stats for his Hayden Wildcats.
He almost made it through scoring all of Hayden’s 2017 league play. At the last home game that season, the community honored Murphy for his 14 years of diligent and precise scorekeeping. He was even able to snap a photo with returning players — now grown — from one of the first teams he kept score for during a night the family won’t forget.
“It meant so much,” Kelsey said. “I don’t think he let those boys know, but he said they were holding him up in that photo.”
In February, Murphy’s doctor told the family: one month. That was it. The palliative care team asked the Murphys if they had a hospice preference. It seemed like everywhere they turned, another friend mentioned Midland Care.
Their Midland Care team of a nurse, social worker, home health aide, chaplain and volunteers soon integrated into family life. They arranged for a hospital bed to be delivered to the home and set it up in the dining room, both for ease of access and so he could get a good view of the first spring blossoms on the trees outside the window.
Murphy’s daughter, Allison Murphy, who lived in Missouri, was planning a May wedding, but arranged a last-minute photo shoot so she could have pictures with her father in their wedding duds.
Despite these spots of sunshine, Murphy’s health continued to decline.
After three weeks of in-home hospice, it was too much. The family called in their social worker to coordinate transporting Murphy to Midland Care’s respite facility.
On March 23, 2017, Murphy died at Midland’s facility. Yet, his family’s relationship with Midland doesn’t end there. The volunteer who helped them still phones to check in. Kelsey and her husband take their children to Midland’s family grief nights. They all plan to participate in one of Midland’s many events in remembrance of loved ones who’ve died.
Just as family and friends referred them to Midland, the extended Murphy clan has become advocates for good palliative and hospice care.
“Dad said he wished we would have known what was available through hospice,” Kelsey said.
Regina Stephenson is a freelance writer who lives in Tecumseh. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.