Life is precarious – eat your dessert first!

Friends often tell me they don’t understand how I am able to work with terminally ill patients. Most say the emotionality of it all would be unbearable. There are many reasons I do what I do. Primarily, it is because I derive great satisfaction in knowing that my presence and involvement in a patient’s life has reduced their emotional angst. But there is another take home for me – I have learned countless valuable lessons about life from the dying; lessons that have served to rearrange my personal priorities.

My first “lesson” was delivered 14 years ago by “Joe”. New to my role as a hospice social worker, I was making my rounds at a hospice inpatient unit when the supervising nurse approached me and asked if I might speak with Joe, whose death was imminent. Joe’s assigned social worker was unavailable and Joe was alone and despondent. I asked for some background on Joe, and when she got to the part about him being a musician, I stopped her cold and said, “I got this covered”. (I am a lifelong musician).

I introduced myself to Joe and in short order said, “I hear you are a musician”. His eyes lit up and I added, “I am too, Joe – what instrument do you play?’ Joe went on for about 30 minutes, delighting in recounting his days as a guitarist in a band, describing his favorite instruments, etc. Even smiling and laughing at times. I listened intently and asked numerous questions.

Finally Joe stopped talking. Pausing for about 3 seconds, he looked at me squarely and solemnly and said, “Thank you for making an old dying man happy”. Then came the lesson. “Let me do something for you”, he said. “Don’t do what I did”. “I was so busy working, mowing the lawn, playing in the band and doing other things that I neglected my family”. He went on to lament about lost time with his daughter as she grew, the wife that he lost, people he angered and lifestyle choices. The message is clear and we’ve all heard it before. Life is precious, life is short. Prioritize accordingly.

Every now and then an event occurs that reminds me of Joe and his sage advice. Today was such a day. This morning, I opened the paper to find the obit of a friend 20 years my senior whom I had not seen in well over 5 years. I kept telling myself that I needed to call him to arrange a visit, meet him for coffee. I never made the call and now it’s too late. Whatever it was that kept me from making that call couldn’t have possibly been that important.


About Charles R. Bacinelli, PhD

Dr. Bacinelli holds a Masters in Social Work and a PhD in Human Development. Professional experiences during his 30+ year career includes university teaching as well as direct care and management experiences in child welfare, hospice, home health, counseling, special needs and program development. In addition to overseeing social service staff, Dr. Bacinelli chairs the Ethics Committee and assists in overall program management and development efforts. He is also a licensed PA Notary.


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