Letters to Josephine: A Hospice Aide's Legacy of Love Lives On

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November 5, 2019

Letters to Josephine: A Hospice Aide's Legacy of Love Lives On

To serve the terminally ill, hospice home health aides need three things: compassion, dedication, and a measure of grit. Hospice work is a calling, and it takes a special person to care for patients facing their end of life, says Coleen McCann, RN, MSN, CPHN, director of Holy Redeemer Hospice. “As I tell my team, the families of our patients are going to remember this experience for the rest of their lives. We have only one chance to get it right.” According to many of those families, hospice home health aide Josephine Gerba got it right every time. Following her death in April 2018, Josephine’s son Steven discovered a cache of letters from patients’ families. Many were handwritten. All were heartfelt. Each one testified to the Philadelphia native’s extraordinary level of service over an eight-year career:

“The loving, personal care you gave helped to ease Jim’s pain, and made his last months far better.”

“We can’t thank you enough for the tenderness and concern you had for our Shirley.”

“Thank you for the special care you gave our dad.”

When Steven found the letters, he felt “happy and sad at the same time,” he says. “It was like finding a treasure.”

First-Hand Experience

Josephine learned the hard way how to care for the sick and injured. At age 52, her husband Steve suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) in a workplace accident. Two years later, he experienced another TBI when he was robbed and beaten. The result was a debilitating seizure disorder that made it impossible for Steve to work full-time. For the rest of his life, Josephine was his caregiver—and the household’s primary breadwinner.

Josephine took a job at Holy Redeemer Hospital, starting in housekeeping, moving to switchboard duty, then advancing to record-keeping. In 1987, she took the intensive 80-hour course to become certified as a hospice home health care aide.

“Her spirit for God is what gave her such a connection to these people,” says Steven. When she began her new career, “something just blossomed in her personality.”

How Hospice Works

Patients may consider hospice care if a physician determines they have six months or less to live.

The hospice team includes a medical director, nurse practitioner, nurse, medical social worker, chaplain, physical therapist, occupational therapist, speech therapist, complementary therapist, home health aide, volunteers, and bereavement coordinators. Together they meet their patients’ physical, psychosocial and spiritual needs allowing them to live out their last days in dignity and comfort. A medical director on call 24 hours a day for any urgent needs.

“This is back to the basics of nursing and caring,” says McCann. “We put our loving arms around both the patient and the family,” also offering bereavement counseling to those left behind.

Comprehensive hospice services are provided in many settings:

  • At home
  • In a long-term care facility, personal care, or assisted living facility
  • In the hospice inpatient unit

Short-term respite care is also an option for caregivers who need a break from the day-to-day responsibilities of caring for a terminally ill loved one.

McCann says most patients choose to spend their final days at home, in a familiar setting, surrounded by those they love.

‘Full Circle’

Josephine retired from hospice in 1995, but was destined to return one last time. In February 2018, she was admitted to Holy Redeemer Hospital the day before her 89th birthday. On a Friday morning, six weeks later, when nothing more could be done for her, she was admitted into the inpatient hospice wing. “It was a wonderful happenstance of events,” says Steven. “On Saturday, she saw and spoke with family. Just before dawn on Sunday, she peacefully and serenely took her last breath. “It was full circle,” he says. “She was happy to be there.” Steven is grateful for the love and kindness shown to his mother at the end of her life. “The hospice team is just so good at what they do,” he says. He could have borrowed a sentiment from one of the many letters to Josephine, which said: “You gave Mom dignity on the last day of her life.


To learn more about Holy Redeemer Hospice, call 1-888-687-8678.

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