Death is inevitable for all people, which is what makes each day of life so sweet, and even persuades some to live and work in paradise. Leslie Henricks is a person who lives each day in pursuit of her dreams while helping others at the end of their lives. She is a hospice nurse in Hilo, Hawaii, and gives insight on various experiences in her nursing career, including her current hospice position.
Henricks was a travel nurse for five years prior to taking the hospice position. Of traveling she stated, “I went into travel nursing because I wanted to travel the country, and had just made some big decisions in my life which completely changed the path I was on. All of a sudden, I found myself free and hungry for new experiences. I had been living in Ind. most of my life, and knew it wasn’t the way of living that my soul was seeking. I saw this avenue for my career as a good way to feel out areas of the country and hopefully find a place I could call home. As for nursing, I have always known this as a career for me. I think I was eight years old, and couldn’t get enough of helping my family members and animals I owned, and others at getting well. In my own way, at eight, I was helping all of them (or so I thought, hah!).”
Henricks is currently not traveling, and has taken a stationary position in Hilo. Though not traveling now, she references that she can see herself returning to it some day, stating, “Traveling will always be a part of my life, but I’ve taken a break from traveling for a profession and now am doing it only for recreation. I took a break because it felt like the right time after 5 years. I found myself longing to root down, have a regular scene, and collect things I couldn’t do as a traveler. Everything I owned could fit in two large suitcases, seriously. Often, I would give away items collected during my assignment before traveling to the next. I find the practice of letting go as an incredible way of freeing myself from attachment and opening up to new experiences. Stuff weighs a person down! Being a travel nurse is a wonderful experience, avenue for meeting all sort of interesting people, and exposing yourself to the world. Travel nursing provided me with confidence in myself and career with the exposure to a multitude of systems and inner workings of organizations. You learn to be flexible with change, and acquire a good amount of knowledge along the way. I’d travel again, because it matches my personality for new experiences and ‘living like on vacation’ all the time.”
Hawaii is a warm climate, full of sunshine and beaches. A frequently visited vacation spot, its warm weather was not the only draw for Henricks when she moved there. On why she made Hawaii her home, she stated, “Sigh, Hawaii. Originally it was because I was living in San Francisco and seeking a nature/solitude getaway in my life at that time. An assignment in Hilo, HI opened up and I contacted my recruiter about it. It’s the only place I’ve traveled to so far where I felt like my heart connected immediately, and actually came back to so much I decided to move here. This island mindset – slow and relaxed attitude – of the people as quality of life is their driving force; the closeness of the community members, the lush environment, the feeling of Aloha in the people you encounter, and the explosion of nature feeds my soul. This is the first place I felt as my home, as I was originally seeking as I set out in my travel nurse career, which did this to me.”
Living in paradise, and working with people addressing death and illness could take away from the image of the Hawaiian dream, but Henricks does not believe that is does. She feels that her work experience only adds to her soulful life on the island, stating, “Living in paradise is a gift and a blessing – each and every moment. Vacations are ‘stay-cations,’ and I visit neighboring islands for my trips. Each island is different enough that it feels like I’m vacationing. The essence of Hawaii is in all of them, and I think this is why so many people see it as a destination. Hawaii gives me the feeling of Aloha unlike anywhere else I’ve been, where I am reminded that this is the way of living we all are seeking.”
She continued, in regards to the care of hospice patients, “It has been said to me that through loss we learn best how to live. Also, that we die the way we live. Some of us struggle; others transition gracefully. Hospice philosophy embodies compassionate care for a whole being. The tune is quality of life; working towards a dignified death, and honor and respect of the individual’s life. While doing these things, we hospice nurses assist the patient in the work they wish to finish while managing any distressing symptoms or feelings, providing a sacred space to reflect, share, and express their stories, desires, lessons, etc. We also bring the family unit to a space of acceptance of this natural process. It’s a work of beauty, and I am honored to work alongside the compassionate, driven people who are drawn to this work. I have found that my day is mostly filled with counseling and the true essence of nursing, more so than any other area I’ve worked in my career. It’s less about technical skill, and more about empowerment, support, advocacy and education. I schedule visits to the home where I’m treated like a family member, and viewed as a guide through this final chapter. In this visit we discuss their plan of care, which is all guided by the person.”
Henricks definitely expresses a passion toward the work that she does now. Having had experience in various hospital settings, including critical care and emergency medicine, she appears to enjoy her current work the most. She went on to state, “As a nurse in a hospital, I was used to controlling my environment, and here, in home hospice, I am only a visitor in their home supporting whatever their goal is. I’m doing an assessment, educating them on disease process and symptom management, and coordinating their care needs with their providers and families while utilizing the community resources. I know that all who I encounter will never forget our interaction, as death and dying is an unforgettable moment in each of their loved one’s lives. The family members will never forget how their loved one passed, and all the details that led up to their final moments. Comfort is the goal. I’m humbled by this work, and to be present throughout the whole process for these individuals and their families. It’s a sacred and intimate time for each of them, and me as well. I’ve witnessed many people transition, die, pass….whatever word of this finality of life is used….and each and every time I feel touched in a soulful, spiritual way. This moment with them, and each moment up to it, reminds me to be present in my life. I have felt sadness, shed tears, and felt loss as I reflect on my experiences with each of the families I have worked with. My empathy for the people I connect with brings me sadness, but as I honor this emotion I also feel inspired to live well and with meaning. I am grateful for these experiences. The sadness transforms to gratitude and I am happy to have had these experiences with my patients.”
In a job filled with many emotions, fear, particularly as it relates to death, is often one. On the subject of her own fears related to her work, Henricks stated, “Fear is such a limiting emotion. It gets the way too often. Recognizing the barriers fear puts up in our lives is breaking them down so we may live in our true nature, on our destined path. Fear is always coming up for me, and will be part of the balance of opposites for the remainder of my life. What this work in hospice has taught me most is that fear shouldn’t be avoided, but rather recognized and accepted as part of the process. I’m learning how to get to the core of my fear in every situation, which leads me to working through each situation, helping me listen to my inner guide and follow my heart in each moment.”
Henricks also expressed respect for the patients for which she cares, and recognizes that fear is present in each of them in various ways and that each situation, and patient, represents a unique process. She commented, “The process of death and dying and all its stages of acceptance and denial I see in each and every person I work with. My role is to provide a sacred space for listening, which helps them process and come to their own conclusion. I don’t give an opinion, because it wouldn’t help their process. Every being beautiful and unique, only the process shares commonality. I really believe it takes a whole lifetime of work in preparing for death.”
Henricks is working in paradise and living out her dream while helping others reach their goals and find peace with their illness in preparing for death. Her advice for those with a terminal illness, no matter their geographical location, is this: “Communicate your feelings. Accept assistance. Reflect on your life and goals. Know that your life is not over, it’s just changing. Look into hospice in your area, because it’s not just for weeks before you die. The people who work in hospice are unbelievable supporters and advocates for your entire family, which I am sure is a worry that comes up each time you think of your terminal illness.”
For persons in the health care field, who are perhaps considering a change to the hospice setting, her advice is, “Anyone who considers hospice as a career is doing so from their heart. Compassion is the heart’s work, and hospice is compassion. Do some research into the hospice organization you seek, reading over their mission and values. Also, talk with someone who works in hospice to get a feel for what the work entails. Hospice work is unlike most environments in healthcare, as it allows for the time and space for quality of life vs. life-saving motives. I wish healthcare adopted the principles of hospice care as a whole. Also, books on death and dying would give insight into the work and natural process of it. Any of the books written by Stephen Levine or Ram Dass, and even Kubler-Ross would be beneficial in deciphering if this is work your soul calls you to.”
With over a million and a half people receiving hospice care annually, an understanding of the field, as well as compassionate persons to work in it, remains constant. The regulations and standards for care are defined by government organizations to ensure that the highest quality of care is provided to every patient. These standards allow a guideline for patients as a whole, while also allowing personalization of the care provided to each individual. Hawaii is not everyone’s paradise – each person has their own version and location of heaven just as each person has their own vision for their death. Hospice care helps individuals to approach this subject in their own way by assisting the patient and family in this very personal affair.
By Latasha Alvaro
Interview with Leslie Henricks
National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization