Student Lives to comfort patients and families facing death
By JAMIE RIDER
She sat in the musty living room of the 89-year-old man and his 85-year-old wife. The man told the hospice social worker that he and his wife were perfectly fine, despite that just last week, his wife had fallen out of her chair and he had struggled to put her back in a sitting position, an act that strained his back.
Danielle Carolla is a hospice social worker for Fayette Home Care and Hospice and a social work graduate student at California University of Pennsylvania. When she is not attending night classes, she is working with elderly people in the region to make sure they are healthy mentally and emotionally. She also consults with doctors so that those people who are struggling at the end of their lives are properly taken care of.
“It’s my job to offer support in the stage of a patient’s life when it’s recognized that some illnesses you don’t recover from,” Carolla said.
She explained there are four levels of hospice care, depending upon patients’ needs. The patients can receive routine care, inpatient care, respite care, or continuous care.
Routine care is the standard level of care. The patient can live at home, in a long-term care facility, or in an assisted living facility. A social worker, a nurse, a chaplain, and home health aides visit at least weekly. This also includes 24-hour, on-call nursing staff who can be reached if there is an emergency.
Carolla said Fayette Home Care specializes in seeing patients in their own homes, rather than in a hospice house.
Fayette Home Care’s website says, “The program strives to maintain patient dignity while focusing on pain and symptom management.”
Carolla spends two days a week making house calls to patients who have been placed under hospice care. She meets with each patient every week at least once and keeps a detailed report of how they’re doing.
She starts her day at the office, collecting files of the patients she will see that day, then hops in her car to drive to the first house on her list. She says driving is the worst part of her job. She never knows how far she’ll have to go or how accessible a patient’s home will be.
“One time I went to see this woman who lived in the mountains and her driveway was extremely steep,” Carolla said. “I was lucky it wasn’t winter, or I would have never made it up to the house.”
She also has to be aware of animals in and around the houses she visits. She is there to make sure patients are OK but must also look out for her own safety. She said she hasn’t had any animals that were a problem but knows it will eventually happen if she stays in the hospice area of social work.
She said she loves her job, despite these small inconveniences.
“It makes me feel so good to know I’m helping a patient and their family,” Carolla said. “It’s part of my job to make sure they’re managing the final days in their life or the life of their loved ones.”
Carolla’s last patient of the day was Catherine Doljac, 86, and a resident of Uniontown. She suffered a stroke and spent three weeks in a nursing home before being released to her family and put under hospice care.
Because she was unable to walk up the stairs at home, her family previously had had a motorized chair lift installed. One night, she attempted to go upstairs to get ready for bed. Doljac’s grandson had fallen asleep on the couch and she thought she could make it up on her own. About halfway up, she suffered a stroke and fell out of the chair and down the stairs.
“It was terrifying,” Paul Urez, Doljac’s grandson, said. He said the noise woke him and he immediately rushed to his grandmother’s side.
“I made sure she was conscious and then called 911,” Urez said.
Doljac was rushed to the hospital and it was discovered why she had fallen out of the chair. The family was advised to place Doljac in a nursing home until she was ready to be released.
“She was in the nursing home for about three weeks,” said Carol Bakos, Dolajc’s daughter. “I wanted to bring my mom home as soon as possible. I thought it would make everything better.”
Unfortunately, this was not the case.
“When Carol told me she wanted her mother
home, I told her it wasn’t a good idea,” Carolla said. “Her condition is too severe and she would be much more comfortable in
a place where there are trained staff minutes down the hall.”
Despite Carolla’s suggestion, the family made the call to bring Doljac home.
Doljac now is bedridden and spends most of her day watching TV and movies. Carolla and the Fayette Home Care staff work to make sure she’s as comfortable as possible and that Bakos is dealing with the situation properly. Bakos works full time and has her own family to take care of, as well as her mother. She said she feels she needs to be the one to hold it all together.
“I have talked to Carol a lot about what is happening,” Carolla said. “Her mother is going to pass away soon and she’s not ready for that. No one ever is, but it’s my job to make sure she knows she has support and walk her through everything every step of the way.”
Bakos recognizes that bringing her mother home was more work than she had expected and appreciates the help Carolla has given.
“Danielle is wonderful,” Bakos said. “Even when I’m not thinking straight, she is so understanding and helpful.”
Bakos said she will continue to take care of her mother the best she can but hasn’t ruled out putting Doljac back in a nursing home if the toll becomes any greater or she feels her own physical and mental states are deteriorating.
“I recognize I have to think about myself to some extent,” Bakos said. “My mom doesn’t want me to kill myself trying to save her.”
Carolla said some families are more stubborn than others and it’s hard to watch them struggle with these issues. She tries not to get emotionally attached to the people she works with, but because of the personal nature of the job, it is sometimes hard.
“I don’t want to get to a point where I don’t care if a person passes away,” Carolla said. “I do know that I have to learn to grieve and let it go. These types of things will drive you crazy if you hold on to them. I manage pretty well, and because I can manage my own emotions, it makes it easier for me to help the patients I see.”
Placing a family member in hospice is not giving up, Carolla said. It’s about making sure the elderly person and that person’s family are as content as possible. The last days of someone’s life are precious and need to be taken advantage of.
“It seems like a sad affair,” Carolla said. “In some ways it is, but I think it’s a really good way to spend your life. I get to help other people and do some good for families when they might not be able to see any good in their lives at all.”
Jamie Rider is a senior majoring in English with a journalism concentration at California University of Pennsylvania.