As my dad lay dying in the bed on the right side of the semi-private room, the pain that I felt in my heart was inexpressible. You see, for all intents and purposes, my life had been pretty much perfect up to that point, and when the call came from the hospital that “I should come as quickly as possible because my father was most probably not going to be with us much longer,” I could not have driven faster, not have run at a quick enough pace and not felt more pain than those words produced. It was a given that eventually my dad might die from his disease, lung cancer, but it was never clear to us that his passing at 58 years of age would occur so quickly.
Dad was the son of Italian immigrants who, like many of the people who came to this country in hopes of creating a better life for themselves and their families, ended up living in what was in essence a company owned home where they paid rent to their employer from their minimum wage salaries until my grandfather passed and his widow, my grandmother, was evicted. It was the immigrant life that had caused my father to be somewhat of a pessimist and yet to embrace every one of our successes as if it was a Super Bowl win.
My dad had not been able to afford college, even with the offer of scholarship assistance, and he had worked his entire life in jobs that sometimes provided barely a middle class income to his family. His endlessly stated goal for his children was that we get a college education. He did not care about the field of concentration or what we decided we wanted to be, just that we were officially educated. Imagine his pride when both my brother and I completed our Master’s Degrees and then continued to seek education beyond that level. He was a very effective cheerleader and, at the same time, a strong and determined father who provided us with the roots that we needed to move forward and the freedom that was required for us to grow, thrive and survive on our own volition.
But on July 5, 1975, 7-5-75, he was consuming the last hours of time that he had been allocated on this planet, and my heart was breaking. As tears streamed down my face, he leaned over, gasping for breath, and said, “Kid, you’ve got to toughen up.”
I’m happy to report that I never have.
The death of my father in a traditional U.S. hospital in 1975 has steered many of my career and personal decisions. You see, from my perspective, my father’s death was a very real example of how people were and unfortunately are, in many cases, still being treated. It is what eventually took me into healthcare administration, the Planetree philosophy of care, and, most importantly, the American Board of Integrative Holistic Medicine. It also allowed me to appreciate the amazing good and healing that takes place in Palliative Care and Hospice as well.
Bottom line, these organizations introduced us to the power of unconditional love. When Father’s Day comes around, I can still see the smile on my Dad’s face, and then I recreate the unbelievable moment when he whispered to his nurse during one of his very last minutes of consciousness, “What did Dick Tracey do today?” He embraced humor, honor, dignity and love to the end. So, too do the physicians of ABIHM and the believers of Planetree. ABIHM is completely about providing unconditional love to their patients, their families and the people who actually provide the care.
This is all about human dignity. It is about nurturing, caring and carefully selecting the appropriate words to give hope and support even in times of transition. This should be the future of healthcare in this country.