I don’t often mix business with this blog, but I have to share this article published yesterday in the Home News Tribune, one of central NJ’s newspapers. The article is a feature on one of the nurses I work with as well as the hospice that I am the chaplain for. Her story shows the value of hospice work for those who work with the dying and their families. I personally find working in hospice to be fulfilling. And to answer the proverbial question, is it depressing, I believe that sadness is the better term. It is sad to witness losses, but by being able to offer support and presence, I am doing something that goes way beyond the sadness that I encounter.
Cindy Lemezis wasn’t sure what she was going to do after she graduated from J.P. Stevens High School in Edison.
By happenstance, the first place that she found a job was at JFK Medical Center in Edison, where she worked as a clerk. She enjoyed working at the hospital and
became a nursing assistant. She found she enjoyed that, too, and with encouragement from supervisors, went to Middlesex County College and got her nursing degree.
“Some people are natural caregivers,” Lemezis said. “It’s just in my nature to want to give care. It’s the way I am put together.”
After she got that degree 32 years ago, she went back to work at JFK as a nurse. Shortly after she started, she had an encounter with a patient that she still vividly
“We had a young woman in the hospital who was dying from stomach cancer,” Lemezis said. “She just laid there and screamed and screamed until she died. It
mattered to me that she died in pain. It was my first eye-opening experience about the impact nursing and nurses can have at the end of someone’s life.”
Over the years, Lemezis has worked as an intensive care nurse and then in home-care nursing.
“Through home care, I developed an interest in hospice,” the 55-year-old Franklin resident said. “I saw that people sometimes needed more than the doctors could do.”
So, four years ago, she decided that “I wanted to end my career as a hospice nurse. It’s just what I wanted and needed to do.”
Three years ago, a position opened at the Somerset-based Martin and Edith Stein Hospice, where she has worked, passionately, ever since.
“We don’t wait for death. We celebrate and affirm life,” said of the work she and others do. “Hospice is my passion.”
Not everyone understands what hospice work is, said Bruce Birnberg, executive director of the Stein Hospice, which is faith-based and nonprofit. The hospice,
affiliated with the Oscar and Ella Wilf Campus for Senior Living in Somerset, serves about 130 patients a year. At any given time, the hospice’s three nurses can be working with up to 30 patients and their families.
“Hospice is really about putting love into the process of dying.” he said. “The medical profession has gotten much better about picking up diseases early in the process, and patients can continue to be treated and treated without really getting better. Hospice is a movement that attempts to restore dignity and take away the medicalizaiton of dying.”
“It’s really about letting families love one another,” he added.
“Cindy is a delightful person to work with,” Birnberg said. “She is very professional and personally spiritual. The people who have her for a nurse are very lucky.”
Hospice is not about helping someone die or hastening death, Lemezis said.
“Hospice let’s someone’s life be as full and positive as it can be,” she said. “At the end of life, we help people live to their fullest and enjoy what time they have left. My goal is every day to make someone smile, even through their pain and suffering.”
Depending upon the level of care a patient needs, she might spend 30 minutes on a visit or two hours. Patients may be in facilities or at home with their families. The hospice works with people of all faiths, and patients are from Middlesex, Somerset and upper Monmouth counties.
One of the first cases she handled for Stein was that of a Chinese woman, who had a Haitian nurse’s aide. Right after the woman died, at home, Lemezis and the aide stood by her bed as the woman’s husband read Psalm 23 in Chinese.
“It was one of the most spiritual moments that I had experienced in a long time,” Lemezis said.
Lemezis calls her own faith her first passion. She is a member of the Middlebush Reformed Church, where she is active in various ministries.
“I am a faith-filled person,” she said. “I believe in God. I believe that he is with me, helping me, throughout the day in everything I do, and in every person I touch.”
When people find out she is a hospice nurse, they often ask her if she doesn’t find the work to be morbid or hard or difficult to do.
“It is hard and it is exhausting.” she said, “but it is also exhilarating all at the same time.”
Typically, she works with a patient for up to six months, but it can be as little as 12 hours. Every situation is different, but she noted that “the longer we have someone, the smoother things go.”
Working with the families of the patient can be the most challenging aspect of her work because different family members can be a t different stages in their understanding and acceptance of their loved one’s condition.
“I’ve learned that you have to listen to the families, and understand what they want, too,” she said. “I want to make it as easy as possible for the families, too, but you can’t make people into something they are not. You have to meet them on their turf and respect them, too.”
Lemezis’ own family is another personal passion. She has four children, Michael, 30, Joshua, 29, Daniel 26, and Melanie, 15. but she tells people she has “seven kids, including her daughter-in-laws.” She also has five grandsons. Her children live out of state, so she and her husband, Ron, spend time talking with them by Iphone. Besides her church, she also is involved in a book club, and she spends many hours outdoors, gardening and “just being outside.”
She so passionately believes in what she does that she recently studied and took a test to become certified in hospice nursing. “I studied hours and hours for it,” she said. “I wanted to make sure I am working with my head as well as my heart, and be assured that I know all I need to in order to do this job to the best of my ability.”
“As my executive director says, “this is holy work that we do,’ ” she added. “Hospice is about life and living it to the fullest to the last moment we can. It’s also about being comfortable and peaceful.”
She emphasizes that when she sees a patient, she doesn’t talk about death.
“I ask them what they did yesterday or what are they going to tomorrow,” she said. “We look for the next goal, the next achievement they can make. I also remember how important it is to treat my patients with dignity.”
She also has been on the receiving end of this work. Her father, John Telliho, died on June 25 at the age of 84 at his home in Edison, with the aid of hospice services. Her family used hospice services at the end of his life.
“Dad stayed at home and enjoyed talking to the nurses. He also understood what was happening,” she said. “It was the best thing we could do for him, rather than
dragging him back and forth to the hospital.”
“Life is a precious gift,” she added. “We get this one time around and we need to make the most of it at every stage. That is what we help people do.”
The Martin and Edith Stein Hospice, 49 Veronice Ave., Suit 206, Somerset, offers the services of a clinical director, hospice nurses, social workers, hospice aides and chaplains. It also offers therapy services and support from trained volunteers. The staff is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. For more details about services, call 732-227-1212 or visit http://www.wilfcampus.org/steinhospice .