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Strangers for a second…become family – Dorinna Cortez, daughter of hospice patient, Albert Cortez

I couldn’t give dad the kind of care I wanted to be able to give to him without help. I think when you love someone it is so important to be able to reach out and ask for help. We are born into a community, we live in a community, and our dying is a community process. Hospice is that community; it’s there for us. All we have to do is reach out. – Dorinna Cortez

Dorinna with dad, Albert.

Albert Cortez started collapsing in December of 2017. At first, his family thought it was just terrible Arthritis. But then he fell, hitting his head which meant he needed a Lifeflight to Queen’s Hospital on O’ahu in January of 2018. Once in the hospital it was clear that Albert’s condition was deteriorating. “Picking up the phone to call Hawai‘i Care Choices wasn’t about admitting that my dad was going to die, it was about opening up possibilities and choices for how our loved one was going to continue to live. The people on the other end of the phone — strangers for a second… they became family,” shared daughter, Dorinna. “The best thing that I did for my dad and my mom was to call hospice. Because it gave us more people who love dad, it made our family bigger, and they not only gave us space to breathe, they gave us space to love dad.”

It is a common misconception that hospice care is only for the last few days or weeks of a person’s journey. The Stanford School of Medicine found a majority of deaths still occur in the hospital (60%) or nursing homes (20%), even though the majority of American’s surveyed said they would prefer to die at home. It is unfortunate that many people miss the benefits of receiving hospice care during their final months. The program’s high-touch approach supports not just the vital needs of the patient, but their loved ones as well. For Albert Cortez, a brief hospital stay on O’ahu was followed by returning home with the support and monitoring of the hospice program, allowing Albert to be in the comfort of his home for over 100 days, until his death in July of 2018.

“People say it takes a village to raise a child, I think it takes a village to live,” explained Dorrina. “We live on an island. I think we know this instinctively. If you mess up and you scream at somebody on the road you will see them at KTA. So, you have to behave; you have to be nice to each other - they going be the one helping you move your stuff when the lava is coming. You have to take care of each other, and that’s what hospice does. It’s not about giving up on your loved one; it’s about just letting other people come in to love him. And that’s what they did. My dad loved his hospice nurse, Shawn, he loved the volunteers that came in and spent time with him – Dano and El, Theresa and Bill. It made the community a part of him.”

Dorinna expressed the fact that she needed, “some space just to think so that when you sit with that person you can be with that person 100%.” It was helpful to Dorinna to be relieved of some caregiving duties that come with caring for a terminally-ill loved one. By enlisting the help of the hospice care team (nurses, volunteers, social workers, spiritual counselors) Dorinna, her brother, and mother spent less time arranging care and more time spending quality moments together as a family.

“Being able to be dad’s daughter meant sitting with him and watching movies we’ve always watched together, talking story with him, not having to get up every five minutes and worry about his medication or do paperwork or call people. We didn’t know how much longer dad had. That time together meant that I have no regrets, it meant that I got to talk to him and I got to say all the things that I wanted to say. He got to talk to me and say all the things he wanted to say so that when dad did pass, there’s sadness, of course, we miss him, but there are no loose ends.
We got to spend that quality time with him, not having to be an organizer – hospice took care of that. I got to sleep at night, I got to come home, and my mom and I could go out and eat. I was less grumpy, and dad and I got along better because I wasn’t so tired. Hospice let me just be his daughter, and it meant so much. The healing started when we called because that’s when I could just love my dad.”

Dorinna and mom, Nani.

For Dorinna, calling Hawai’i Care Choices is not about giving up on your loved one; it’s about letting other people come in to love them. When asked about changing the name from Hospice of Hilo after 35 years of service Dorinna said, “I know they changed their name to Hawai’i Care Choices because it’s not just about hospice, they have palliative care, bereavement services and it’s all about choices, but for me the word hospice meant so much. Hospice meant support, it meant dad getting the care that he needed; it meant getting the support that we needed so that we could be with my dad. Hawai’i Care Choices gave dad and me and mom and my brother options. We could choose how we wanted to care for dad. Dad could choose how he wanted to live in the last part of his life. People might hesitate to call for help because they don’t want strangers doing what they feel they are supposed to be doing for their loved one.

When asked what Dorinna would tell others who have family members in need of support she shared, “I think if someone is having a hard time picking up the phone to call, part of that may be because it might feel like an admission that you are going to lose your loved one. We should reframe it so that picking up the phone to call Hawai’i Care Choices isn’t about admitting that they are going to die, it’s about opening up possibilities and choices for how your loved one is going to continue to live for as long as they have here on the Earth. It gave us options when we felt completely stuck and alone and overwhelmed. Pick up that phone, make the call, if you change your mind, that’s fine. It’s about choice. It doesn’t have to be scary - the people on the other end of that phone, like I said before, strangers for a second, they become family.”

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