Giving Comfort

Hospice Hawaii assists patients in the last stages of life, as well as their families.

Hospice Hawaii volunteer Bob Tsushima with patient Margaret McClement, of Hawaii Kai.

Photo by:  Lucy Pemoni

Bob Tsushima’s father died of cancer. After the cancer had spread to his dad’s liver, his physician told him that he could receive more chemotherapy, which up until then had been incredibly debilitating. His life expectancy would still be less than six months. He asked instead, “What are my other choices?” His physician replied, “Well, you could do nothing.”

Tsushima’s father lived 10 more months, and spent his remaining time at home, with his family, “doing one more thing one more time,” like watching one more UH football game, taking one more trip to Kauai and having multiple “one more time” shave ices.  He also wrote a final letter to be read at his funeral, and to be published in the Japanese-language newspaper, for which he had been a reporter for more than 50 years. 

“We’re all going to die,” Tsushima explains, “but to be given a notice of less than six months to live is a privilege. It is an incredible time to bring closure for the patient and the family.” Watching his mother care for his father while he had cancer, Tsushima says, he learned the importance of taking care of people in their dying moments.  

Tsushima attended Hospice Hawaii’s first volunteer training class, back in 1981, and he has continued to be a volunteer visitor ever since. “Assisting patients and families who choose to care for their loved ones with a terminal disease at home has been a natural progression of what I experienced in my own household,” says Tsushima. 

Hospice Hawaii provides palliative care and support for people with a terminal illness and a prognosis of having six months or less to live. Hospice Hawaii’s program includes a comprehensive plan of care for both the patient and the family, which addresses emotional, social and spiritual needs. Hospice Hawaii has more than 200 active volunteers and 190 staff members. In 2007, Hospice Hawaii served more than 650 patients. 

Ken Zeri, president of Hospice Hawaii, explains that they ask each patient, “How can we help you live the rest of your life and what does that look like?” Most patients respond, “Home is where I want to be.” Following this request, Hospice Hawaii primarily cares for patients in their own homes. For severe cases it has five-bedroom facilities in both Palolo and Kailua, and it also works with nursing homes and hospitals.

The caregivers who help the terminally ill, often family members, must do everything from assisting with bathing to helping the patients eat, and must be available 24 hours a day. 

Visitor volunteers assist the families of the terminally ill, and also spend valuable time with the patients themselves.  As Zeri explains, “What the volunteers do is tremendous on so many different levels. Going out and connecting to the patient signifies that this is no longer ‘lung cancer guy in bed two,’ but that this is a person who is worthy of my time.” Hospice Hawaii believes that each human life has an inherent value, and it addresses how the patients’ lives had meaning and purpose, how they are connected to their families and to something bigger than themselves, allowing them to feel closure.

Tsushima says it’s very rewarding to be a volunteer. “I get a whole lot more back by being of service. All of the volunteers say, ‘I got so much out of my relationship with the family, and the patient.’ The gratitude that comes from the family is the payback.”