“I don’t know how you can deal with death and dying all day long.”

It is a statement I hear frequently. My usual reply is that I cannot see myself doing anything else. My path to full-time hospice work was not a straight one , but definitely one that came full circle. During the mid 90’s, I did my family medicine residency training, which included an inpatient elective in palliative care. I was immediately enamored and drawn to this branch of medicine. I contemplated pursuing fellowship training, but the children in my life took priority at the time.

In 2009, I lost my beloved mother to breast cancer. This further solidified my desire to work in hospice when I saw the lack of options for her. With the recommendation of an amazing nurse colleague, in 2015, I was fortunate enough to get some part-time work in hospice and the rest as they say, is history. It is now 2021 and I am employed in hospice full-time and I could not be happier or feel more fulfilled.

Working with dying patients and their families has given me a different perspective on life and what it means to live it to its greatest potential. It gives me hope that there is a life beyond the one that we can see with our mortal eyes. Observing my patients experience deathbed visions gives me comfort that someone is there to welcome us to the afterlife. I have learned about collaboration and the importance it plays in “total” patient care; that is the spiritual and emotional wellbeing of those we care for. It has opened my eyes to the importance of nurturing the relationships we have in this life, and the impact we have on those around us.

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Dying teaches us about living and I believe that living (the way we are meant to) can teach us about dying and how to have a “good” death. These are trying and tumultuous times we are living in and as health care providers, we have the potential to make a lasting impact on those we care for. I firmly believe that it can be as simple, yet profound as sitting at someone’s bedside and just holding their hand and listening. Listening without judgement, preconceived notions, or the desire to “fix” opens up an amazing level of connection and understanding which we can use in every aspect of our lives.

The world is filled with hate and we have the potential to show love- not only to ourselves, but to our families, our patients and colleagues and also to strangers. Tenderness and compassion need to be practiced and what better place than with those facing the end of their lives. I have been given the privilege of helping people make their final transition and what an honor it is indeed.

Finally, it has nudged (or perhaps pushed) me into exploring my own spirituality and embarking on the next chapter of my life…..enrolling in graduate school at the age of 52 and obtaining a Masters of Divinity. God is opening doors for me that I am running through with the biggest smile on my face.

Denise Burnett, MD is a full-time hospice physician in Grand Junction, Colorado. She enjoys writing, music, photography, and enjoying beautiful Colorado.