When I picked up the voicemail messages on my cell phone, one was from the Pastor of a homeless mission near our in-patient unit. “Hi Tom, there’s a young woman who volunteers at our church once a week, and I think she might need hospice help.”
Upon returning the call, I learned about Shannon, a 28-year-old female who was homelessherself and living in the woods near Hudson, Florida. She would leave the woods every Thursday, visitthe mission, and work with Pastor Tim as he distributed food and ministered to the needs of men,women, and children that had no place to live, nothing to eat, and nowhere to go. In return for her assistance each week, Pastor Tim would give her enough food to take back with her until she returned the following Thursday.
When Shannon didn’t appear at the mission for three consecutive weeks, Tim checked with local law enforcement and the hospitals, learning eventually that she had been brought to the RegionalMedical Center at Bayonet Point where they diagnosed her as being in the advanced stages of pancreatic cancer. Within a short time, Gulfside staff admitted Shannon to our hospice service, sendingher to the inpatient unit where I served as a chaplain.
I’ll never forget when the Med-Fleet ambulance arrived at our IPU and the nurse asked thedriver if the patient had any clothes or other belongings. He shook his head and said, “only a pair ofripped jeans, a tee-shirt, and these sneakers with holes in them.” Literally, Shannon had nothing excepta photo of herself tucked in the back pocket of those ripped jeans --- a picture taken when she was a 15-year-old high school homecoming queen, and a crumpled-up sheet of paper.
In reviewing the hospital records and in speaking with Pastor Tim, Shannon never mentioned that she had parents, siblings, or any local friends, other than those whom she served at the homeless mission.
When our staff had her settled in a room and the doctor concluded his examination, I visitedShannon, sitting next to her bed. On the night stand, the nurse had placed the homecoming picture thatShannon carried in her jeans. She was so beautiful in that photo --- long, flowing brown hair, anengaging smile, and piercing blue eyes. Her friends surrounded her and appeared to be applauding her selection as the queen.
Shannon knew she was very sick and that now, death was near. Her countenance only slightly resembled that vivacious sophomore with her whole life ahead of her in 2003. Speaking slowly andsoftly, but with great emotion, she shared her story about succumbing to the pressure of popularity,making poor choices, medicating her emotional pain with drugs and alcohol, being disowned by herfamily, and then running away from the comforts of her South Carolina home at the age of 17. Then, after two abusive relationships, she panhandled on the streets and lived in the woods for the past three years.
When I asked her if there was anyone I might contact, she politely said, “No, thank you. But there is something you could do for me.” “And what is that?”, I inquired. Shannon said, “I know I’mgoing to die. And I have asked God to forgive me for all of the mistakes I’ve made in my life, and I believe that I’m going to heaven soon. But my life for the past ten years has been so empty and lonely. And Inever felt as though anyone really cared about me or loved me. Will you and the doctors and nurseshere love me and be my family while I die?”
Her request gripped me so emotionally that, when I listened to it, I lowered my head for aminute because I didn’t want Shannon to see the tears in my eyes. During the remaining six days she graced us with her presence, Shannon was spiritually and emotionally adopted by our entire staff. When she took her last breath on that Tuesday afternoon, she had her hand in mine, a smile on her face, andthe heartfelt support of the staff that had gathered in her room to say their good-byes.
We held a spontaneous memorial for Shannon after our IDG meeting the following week. As we shared prayer and scripture during her last days, Shannon wanted everyone to receive a special blessing after she passed, a blessing she had copied on that crumpled-up sheet of paper that came with her on the ambulance ---
“Come, you who are blessed by my Father,Inherit the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink,I was a stranger and you invited me in, I was in prison and you came to visit me.Then the righteous will ask,‘Father, when did we see you hungry and feed you, Or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, Or needing clothes and clothe you?When did we see you sick or in prisonAnd go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly, I tell you, Whatever you did for one of theLeast of these brothers and sisters of mine,You did it for me.’”
In a very short time, Shannon transformed us as hospice professionals, enriching our awareness that our vocations are fulfilled when we become a treasured partner in each patient’s life story, a hope and a help to them as co-travelers on their death journey. Thank you, Shannon. We love you!