Before I die . . .
Jill Smyth had one last wish: to buy a lifetime of gifts for her children.
She was 32 years old and a mother of three cheerful, spunky daughters; ages 5, 7 and 9. After weathering multiple, unsuccessful rounds of chemotherapy for Stage 4 ovarian cancer, she knew her time was limited.
Feeling supported by her hospice team, Smyth put together a list of gifts she wanted to purchase for her daughters’ future birthdays, Christmas celebrations, graduations and weddings. These were all milestones that she knew she would never live to see. She gave that list, along with a credit card, to her hospice volunteer and chaplain, and asked them to go on a shopping spree.
The team kicked into high gear and after a week of shopping they returned to Smyth’s house with a stockpile of gifts and cards. Her hospice volunteer beautifully wrapped each item in an assortment of papers imprinted with pink and purple flowers, fleurs-de-lis, snowflakes and hearts.
Smyth handwrote notes for each gift and lovingly tied them to the corresponding packages. When the shopping mission was complete, she said, “It is important to me that my girls know that I’m with them always, and that they see and experience my love for them … even when I’m not here.”
Just like Smyth, another patient, Jesus Caballero, had one last wish, too: to revisit his hometown in Mexico and reconnect with the people he knew and loved. His wish was no small feat given the fact that he was living 1,000 miles away in Sacramento, residing on a tourist visa, and slowly dying of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, an advanced lung illness.
Jesus was a widower. As he aged and became more frail, his adult children brought him to Northern California to care for him. Because he was not a U.S. citizen, Jesus was not eligible for Medicare, Medi-Cal or any other medical benefits.
Fortunately, there was a safety net in place that included Sutter Health, CommuniCare Health Centers and then Yolo Hospice.
After he entered hospice and his clinical team learned that he wanted to go back to Mexico one last time, the team got busy.
The first goal was to get Jesus feeling better, even though he had a bad prognosis. According to Nidia Martinez, his hospice aide, “When he first came to us, we thought he was actively dying.”
But the team and his family rallied around him. They knew they could not cure his disease, but they could manage his physical symptoms and support him emotionally and spiritually. Whatever was important to Jesus was important to his team.
Through the coordination and delivery of comfort care, his condition improved dramatically. All of a sudden, according to Martinez, “He wasn’t leaving us.” From appearing only days away from death, Jesus’ condition improved so much under Yolo Hospice’s care that a trip back to Mexico seemed possible.
It took nearly a year for Jesus and his family to be ready to travel, but he finally made it back to his homeland and to his tiny ancestral village where he was well-known and well-respected. While there, Jesus said his goodbyes to the people who were woven into the fabric of his life. The trip gave important closure for him, and for his family who helped make it happen.
After he returned to California, Jesus’ condition worsened. When it did, he expressed another wish: to keep walking for as long as possible.
“Walking was important to him,” according to Martinez. “In his culture, they don’t stop walking. He was from a rural village and had no car. He walked his whole life. So, he needed to keep walking.”
Eventually, his condition improved again and he was able to live, and walk, for another year. His hospice nurse, Ernesto Necoechea, says, “He had no health crises, just a slow decline.”
In the end, the man who initially seemed a few days away from death lived almost two years, and fulfilled his final dream to say goodbye to the country and people he loved … and to keep walking along the way.
It is standard practice for Yolo Hospice staff to talk with patients about the things that are most important to them, and to ask if they have any special wishes. In an effort to expand this conversation to the wider community Yolo Hospice and the city of Davis have partnered together on an art project in downtown Davis called “Before I Die …”
As part of this interactive art initiative, the public is invited to express their wishes or thoughts about what they want to do before they die by writing their hopes down on a public comment wall on First Street (between E and F streets). The wall, on the south side of the Regal Holiday 6 Cinemas, prompts passersby to contemplate what it means to be alive, and to document their comments on one of four multi-language walls.
Already, more than 1,000 people have filled in the blanks and recorded their wishes. Just a handful of comments have included: Before I die, I want to … “Fall in love.” “Travel the world.” “Learn a new language.” “Get a dog.” “Jump out of a plane.” “Make a difference.”