Q: You help people to die. Why do you do that and what is that like?
A: For the last 10 years, I have worked with cancer patients and their families and I have found that one of the greatest fears is that they will be left alone at the end, that people will fall away. Part of my commitment is that I will stay by them and walk through that process. As a nurse, I have the medical background to help facilitate their maneuvering in the medical system and get them into hospice or home care, and make medical assessments and see that their pain is being managed adequately.
Q: I've heard you describe the high that comes from helping someone to die peacefully. What do you mean by that?
A: I mean helping them to live fully and with great intentionality and enjoyment in life until the last couple of days of their life. Helping them to look at and work through unresolved issues in the family and their relationship with their spouse, with their parents or whomever. We're not denying the fact that their illness is progressing and that they really, to be at peace at death, need to have some kind of resolution or work with some of those issues.
I've seen over and over again what a difference being prepared to die can make in people. There are techniques that help them to live more fully, to be more relaxed, to be de-stressed, that can also help them die. When they come to the point emotionally of saying, "I've had enough, I can't fight anymore, I'm just weary, I'm ready to let go," those same techniques that have helped them to live can help them stop fighting.
Usually it takes a couple of days to let go and to die. The real dying process might be three days, five days at the most, usually. The alternative is that when people get a diagnosis of cancer, they say I'm dying and they begin dying and that process might take four years. That's a very long time to die. And it's destructive to them and to everybody around them.
Q: Tell me about (veteran Washington journalist and Washington Times editorial page editor) Anne Crutcher's death?
A: I was brought in by a friend who knew Anne very well and I saw her in the hospital on a Wednesday. She had had cancer for a number of years and had just been told by her doctors that that there was really no more treatment available to her.
When I saw her, she was extremely frail but still that day an editor was in talking about her latest editorial. I had about an hour or two with her alone and we talked about whether she was ready to die and what that would mean to her and what things she felt unfinished in her life. One daughter was pregnant at the time and that was real tough, to want to see that baby, one more grandchild. But other than that, she was really very much at peace.
Friday was the 10th anniversary of her husband's death. As we talked, it became clearer and clearer that now that she knew there was no more active treatment possible, she was really ready to let go.
I believe people have a lot of say about when they actually die and when they let go. I said she might want to choose to let go on her husband's anniversary and make that a dual anniversary for the family. She thought that was an okay idea. She was anxious about talking to her daughters about her death and we talked about blessing this unborn baby. She debated, could she push herself to live until it was born, another five or six months? She came to realize that that was not possible and accepted that.
If she wanted me, she could call and I would come. But I was quite sure she would die on Friday. She had one daughter coming in from Ohio. She got in late Friday afternoon and Anne didn't have enough time with her. So she put it off another day. I got there Saturday at 5, 5:30, and the whole family and her closest friends were gathered there.
Q: This was at home?
A: Her bed was in the living room. There was a fire in the fireplace and a wonderful peasant stew cooking in the kitchen and smelling the whole house up wonderfully. She was clearly at peace and ready to go but she wanted to know I was there. We communicated briefly for just a few minutes.
Q: What did she want from you?
A: She wanted me to be there to support the family. I and all the kids and everybody she wanted were there and talking very quietly; she was fading in and out of consciousness. Her hearing is still very accurate at this point. I said, "Why don't you all go in and just stroke her and talk about old fun times that you had as a family, old memories."
People got started with that and there was somebody stroking one arm and somebody stroking another arm and somebody rubbing her feet. People were telling funny stories and the food was smelling good and she just let go. You could feel a power and a presence in that room that was touchable, tangible. Several of her kids didn't even realize she was gone for maybe 10 minutes. She was very calm and peaceful and drifted off.
She had orchestrated it. It was so clear that she had wanted to see this last daughter and when she was ready to go, she went. Her dying was really from Wednesday to Saturday.
Q: But what is the high?
A: It's as much a celebration of growth as delivering a baby. They are, in my mind, both highs when they happen well. If a baby's delivery is a catastrophe and there are complications, that can be overwhelming. When a death is full of pain and agony and dissension and unresolved issues within the family, that can also be an agony. Part of my work is trying to help those (events) be done well.
Q: What was the presence in the room that was tangible?
A: I felt God in that space. It was as if He came down and lifted her up. For a while, maybe a half an hour or an hour, both their spirits were there. Her presence was felt there for a while and then it was lifted up and it was gone. But it was like I could bump into her, it felt so tangible. While her body was lying there on the bed she was moving among us.
Q: Do you believe in an afterlife?
A: I do.
Q: And what is it like?
A: I don't really know. I have a sense from some people I've worked with who have had near-death experiences and talked about that -- walking into a sense of light and a wholeness and a tremendous peace and a kind of a letting go of the struggle that life is for most people. That's certainly the sense I've had.
It's part of my belief system. It's hard for people who don't have that belief system to let go peacefully because they're going to a void. It makes death a transition in a growth process rather than a total ending and a blank wall at the other side.
Q: Do you sometimes fail and can't get the person to accept death?
A: There are people who will die fighting, their last breath will be a fight. They may go on for weeks, at the point of death, hanging onto life because either there's unfinished business, tremendous fear of this void, or lack of sense of what they might be going to.
With some people who just can't seem to die or let go I sometimes try and find out what it is that theyre hanging on for. When they can identify that, often it's within the next 24 hours that they let go. People who fight to live like that, often their bodies are pushed way beyond (what) physical endurance would normally dictate. When they have the emotional set to let go, their bodies have long since been ready to let go. That's the easy part.
Q: A psychiatrist you know calls you "The Death Lady" and doesn't like to have you over for dinner parties because you're too morbid. Do you run into many people who react this way to you?
A: I'm just -- . Where did you get that one from?
Q: That'll have to be off the record.
A: Um, I think -- . There are a lot of people in our society that are very frightened of death. They don't know what to do with me because I'm not. I've been around it enough that maybe it's just not frightening to me.
Q: How does it feel to be taking money for something you used to do as a calling, when you were a nun?
A: It was difficult in the beginning and it continues to be difficult because often people come to me and they are financially already drained. I would love to have somebody sponsoring me. That's just not possible. I need to contribute to a living for my family. I get around it by trying to have a balance. I don't see all people who are in a dying phase, I see people who are in for stress management or psychotherapy who have insurance and can pay. In a way I look at it like tithing -- 10 percent of your talents or your income, whatever -- would be free.
Q: You also work with pregnant women. Is that a balance for you for your work with the dying?
A: Oh yeah. I do it because I've had three children and I think in terms of pain management to incorporate hypnosis is to me life-giving to a lot of mothers. I used hypnosis for my own delivery and I found it invaluable. I love the balance of having new babies and pregnant women and people who are very sick all mixed together.
Q: What do you do with the hypnosis for these pregnant women?
A: I teach them how to put themselves in a hypnotic state and basically go out of their body and to change the physical sensations of the contractions. Some women can sleep through almost the entire labor. No medication. I had a woman in very long extended labor with monitors everywhere because she was a high-risk pregnancy who was being induced. She had tremendous contractions and just never showed any sign of awareness of (it) all. She came out of a 48-hour labor experience being totally rested because we had done some time distortion as part of the hypnosis. She had a vacation in terms of rest and no awareness of pain.
Q: I also understand you use the healing hands technique?
A: "Therapeutic Touch." It's an ancient art of using your hands to interact with the energy field of another person. You can stimulate better energy in that person, it changes the hemoglobin in the blood and the oxygen-killing part of the blood. People have done it for ages and ages but we are only now beginning to understand scientifically and physiologically what happens. I use it with cancer patients all the time. It can reduce radically their perception of pain and experience of pain.
Often you don't even touch the person, but smooth out the energy field, decongest it, work with areas of imbalance in the body, especially with the people who have been bed- ridden. When you're immobilized, the energy flow is locked in static and to work with moving that energy and making room for new energy to come through their system is tremendously relaxing and very healing.
The patient I saw just before you came in has had very high blood pressure and is under tremendous stress and we touched today for the first time. He has been running a blood pressure of 150 over 100 and after doing Therapeutic Touch for about 10 minutes his blood pressure was 110 over 80.
Q: Is there any scientific evidence that we have energy fields?
A: Oh yes. We can photograph the energy field around a person or an animal or a plant.
Q: Some friends have described you as being psychic. Are you?
A: At times I am. I don't always understand exactly what to do with the stuff I get. Sometimes in working with people very intensely I will have an awareness of what they may be experiencing physically. With a woman I have been working with I was aware in the middle of the afternoon that they had blown the veins in her arm and that they had to take out the IV. She was in a lot of distress. And, in fact, at that very time, that's what was happening.
Q: You were where?
A: I was not with her at the hospital. And not thinking of her. But had this spontaneous experience of awareness that something was happening to this lady's right arm. Did you feel it in your own arm? I felt it in my arm, just like that and just aware immediately that that's who it was. I've had that happen numbers of times. In working so closely with people and really journeying with them, I tune into them psychically in a way that sometimes is confusing to me and sometimes helpful and sometimes not helpful.
There are times when I have to be very consciously aware of disconnecting myself from them so that I don't pick up too much stuff. I can sometimes walk in a room and have a sense of something going on in somebody and sometimes it's appropriate to do something with that information. Sometimes there's a process of trying to figure out whether it's something I ought to share or not share. I've just been becoming more aware of the psychic part of myself. I'm a beginner at this.
Q: Is the medical community as a whole too concerned with technology and not concerned enough with spirituality?
A: A lot of people look at only the scientific, technological parts of a person. But more and more they're realizing the interplay between the spiritual, physiological and emotional life of a person. How stress influences the immune system and people's ability to get well. Why some people with a poor prognosis survive and get well and other people with a very good prognosis die.
Attitude has a lot to do with that. It may be that life is better for them if they're sick. People pay more attention to them. There are a lot of benefits to being sick. People need to be able to look at those benefits and figure out a way of hanging onto the good things about being sick without having stay sick or die for it.