ROCKVILLE – Emily Ongiro used to have only one reason to celebrate Thanksgiving — so that her 6-year-old son could share the experience with his friends at school.
But this year, the Kenyan immigrant and nursing aide said she has realized she has a great deal to be thankful for.
Ongiro, 28, has seen at least 20 people die since August when she came to work at Casey House, the inpatient facility at the Montgomery Hospice where terminally ill patients come to spend their last few days or weeks. Instead of depressing her, she said, the experience has opened up a world of beauty.
“I have learned to enjoy my life, learned that I have so much to be grateful for,” she said.
Ongiro’s experience is not unique among nurses and social workers at the hospice, many of whom said Wednesday that working with the dying made them feel more positive about life, especially during holidays.
“It is not depressing … you feel like you are part of a very significant life event. And that is very fulfilling,” said Patricia Ginalick, 48, a nurse at Casey House.
The day before Thanksgiving, a holiday mood pervaded the bright and cheerful Casey House, which stands in the beautiful, deer-dotted landscape of Derwood in Montgomery County.
In the front office, Suzi, a black labrador who is “our most hard-working nurse,” was taking time off between rounds — “we got her because studies show that pets lower blood pressure,” said Patricia Kelley, clinical director at the hospice.
Many patients prefer to spend Thanksgiving at home with their families, she said. But those who stayed in the hospice were to be treated Thursday to “a special lunch – turkey and cranberry sauce with all the trimmings,” Kelley said.
Even though most of the patients are too sick to eat it, that does not stop them from joining in the spirit, Ongiro said. “Even the ones who can’t eat will order the turkey just for the fun of it,” she said.
The patients always know when a holiday is coming, Ongiro said. “They start asking us about it weeks before,” she said.
Kelley, who has worked in hospices for more than 20 years, said that dying people often push themselves to live through special events “because they don’t want to spoil holidays for the rest of the family, and also because they want that memory.”
Dying people wait for visitors, new babies, marriages — “they hang on to that event,” Kelley said.
That can lead to a post-holiday spurt in the number of deaths at the hospice, Kelley said, the only part of the holidays that “always have a bittersweet flavor” for staffers.
For the hospice staff themselves, the key to working with death all the time was to maintain a veneer of normalcy.
“It’s like acting,” said Kathleen McAllier, 39, a social worker, who used to work with child abuse victims but came to Casey House after the birth of her first child.
“At first I was terrified someone would die under my care,” McAllier remembered. But in the six years that she has been here, she has learned enough to prepare a family for a death within an hour, she said.
The secret, she said, was “to not take the losses as my own. You have to maintain your grace and composure.”
Michele Orr, 41, a nurse who works on the hospice’s home care program, said that while dealing with terminally ill patients, it is often the family that needs the most support.
Roger Hailey, whose son Charles died at Casey House of melanoma this month, said the support helped him “tremendously” in dealing with his son’s cancer.
“They made me feel right at home … it was like being with family. The social workers were outstanding,” he said, adding that his son was “absolutely happy” at the end of his life.
Hailey said he and his wife, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, were not able to take care of Charles, 43, who was divorced. At the hospice, Charles had 24-hour care that made his final days “very comfortable,” his father said.
He said the family plans a proper Thanksgiving celebration Thursday, and that he will be particularly thankful this holiday for the fact that his son died peacefully.
“We’re very sorry for the loss but we’re thankful that the suffering is over,” Hailey said.