Comfort Care Companion

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Sitting vigil next to an end-of-life patient.

cartoon drawing of cancer survivor and blogger, Mary Sansone

As a survivor, one of the ways I give back is as a Moffitt Cancer Center comfort care companion, sitting vigil bedside for cancer patients at end of life. A trained group of us volunteer in shifts to be with the patient when family members cannot be present.

A few days ago, I went to Moffitt Cancer Center to sit vigil with an elderly lady who was passing away after a struggle with lung cancer.

When I entered the room, a sleeping pale skinned soul was breathing heavily, eyes closed. I was prepared to hold her hand and provide comfort. She looked weary, lonely, and, at times, agitated.

I knew nothing about her life.

But her two daughters and her granddaughter arrived. I could have left, but they welcomed me in during this tough time. I think they were happy to have an outsider in the room so that they could share stories of their mother.

The woman on the bed used to be a pre-school teacher. She was a bubbly, funand giving mother. She dressed up as Mrs. Claus aside her husband Santa and made surprise visits to children. She dressed up as a witch on Halloween and had a blast creating a crazy scary haunted house in their home that would “scare the be-Jesus out of grown men.”

The mother loved her daughter’s cooking. Her last real meal was a turkey and cornbread casserole that she devoured.

I smiled at pictures that were shown to me of their mother. I saw her white curly cotton ball hair that grew in post chemo. I saw her smiling in a knit hat over her then bald head, beside her daughters who also wore knit hats in solidarity. I witnessed a video of the mother mumbling nonsensical yet sweet things near the end of her life before coming to Moffitt. She was having an amusing conversation with herself.

The family also showed me a picture of their older sister engaging with Danny Thomas at St. Jude Hospital before she died from leukemia at a young age. The younger daughter present in the room never got to meet her older sister as she wasn’t born yet.

I think I was there not just for the patient, but also for the family. They talked over each other, trying to insert their own version of a comical anecdote that involved their mother. I was honored to sit beside a beloved woman loved so much by her children and her grandchildren. Heck, I think I was put there for me too! I see how a life well lived created beautiful memories for loved ones.

 Eventually, I made my exit to let them be alone with their dying mother. Later that evening, she passed away.

If a kind stranger sits vigil next to me one day, I hope that this person feels my spirit through a light wind. I hope they don’t put on a movie, file their nails, or play games on their phone. It would be lovely if the person absorbed the mystery happening before them. They may not know me at all, but my family can attest that I lived a storied life. 

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