ROCHESTER — Judy Kaltenbach’s ministry of giving lights up the rooms of Lifetime Care’s Hospice Inpatient Unit, bringing rays of sunshine to those who need them most.
“I’m glad that helped your pain,” she says after giving medication to a middle-aged woman with terminal cancer.
In another room she speaks to a sobbing woman sitting at the bed of her dying mother: “She seems nice and comfortable to me. I know you need a lot of reassurance — she is your mother. None of us wants to see anyone uncomfortable.”
Kaltenbach notes that on this early October day, there are seven patients in the hospice.
“We had eight yesterday. There was a death during the night,” she says, adding that she expects three additional patients to die within the next 24 hours.
Such circumstances are not uncommon for Kaltenbach, a registered nurse at the hospice, located at Unity Health System’s Genesee Street campus in the former St. Mary’s Hospital. Some may wonder how she can bear to work in an environment where death constantly hovers, but Kaltenbach says she feels right at home here, striving to provide comfort and peace.
“I find it — believe it or not — very rewarding, very uplifting,” says Kaltenbach, 69, a parishioner of St. Louis in Pittsford. “I really feel I make a difference. Death is a part of life, and if you can make a difference at that most critical time, that’s uplifting.”
Much of Kaltenbach’s work is devoted to administering and adjusting medication; doing paperwork; and making frequent checks on the patients — “especially if no one’s with them. You don’t want to leave them unattended at all.” She patiently answers the many questions that arise from patients and their loved ones — remaining tactful yet truthful about medical conditions, even as patients’ vital signs indicate death is perhaps only hours away.
Kaltenbach is anything but cold and stoic while navigating these situations.
“It’s a loss every time, because of the bonding that takes place,” she says, emphasizing that watching people die never becomes routine. “It doesn’t mean you don’t grieve with every family. The day I don’t is the day I don’t work here anymore. I think I cry with every family, some more so than others.”
She adds that other staff members and volunteers feel the same way.
“My sentiments are shared by every person in this unit,” she says.
Their caring ways are obviously appreciated, based on the large number of thank-you cards dotting the doorway of the nurse’s station. Kaltenbach says she formed her own appreciation for this special ministry by witnessing two loved ones receive hospice care: her brother, Jim Dillon, who died in 1986; and her husband, Bill, who died five years ago. In fact, Kaltenbach was so impressed by the work of hospice nurses that she sought to become one herself; she began attending nursing school at age 50.
“I knew I wanted hospice from the very beginning,” she says.
She has worked at the Hospice Inpatient Unit since 1990 — one year after it opened on the sixth floor of the St. Mary’s building, in quarters Lifetime Care rents from Unity Health System. She works on a per diem basis — usually two days a week, but sometimes up to 40 hours. The hospice, with a capacity of 12 beds, assists adult patients with acute symptoms. An average stay is about 10 days, but can range from one day to a few weeks. Some patients are moved from the facility to home hospice or comfort-care facilities, but a great many conclude their earthly lives right at the hospice.
Kaltenbach says she feels especially bad for patients who simply can’t get comfortable, and for families struggling mightily with their loss. Upon some deaths, loved ones may even faint, requiring a call to 911.
“There are days that are stressful. But I wouldn’t go anywhere else,” she states.
Kaltenbach says the support of co-workers — many of whom have longtime experience in hospice care as well — is vital.
“It can be extremely busy and emotional,” she says. “We always try to take a little time to interact with each other. Somebody’s always up when you’re down.”
No matter what kind of mood she’s in, Kaltenbach seeks to always give her best to patients.
“You leave your troubles outside the door when you come in here, because these people have their own troubles,” she says.
Kaltenbach observes that physical pain is not always her primary concern.
“There are a lot of kinds of pains,” she says. “It’s more of a spiritual, emotional pain — the fear of letting go and fear of the unknown.”
She has no rehearsed response to these fears, yet “I don’t know how it happens, but the right words come out,” she says.
Upon further thought, Kaltenbach concludes that those words are guided by her faith in God.
“Believing we are going someplace else, and that somebody is helping us make that journey, helps,” she acknowledges.