Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

A NURSE'S FRANK APPROACH TO END OF LIFE Series: LIFE'S JOURNEY: A BETTER END

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

A NURSE'S FRANK APPROACH TO END OF LIFE Series: LIFE'S JOURNEY: A BETTER END

Article excerpt

Nearly 7,000 people die each day in the United States. At 11:35 p.m. on May 23, as a CD played Beethoven's "Fleur de Lis" in her bedroom on one of Pittsburgh's highest hills, Joan Baldwin-Branch was one of them.

Few others approached their death as she did.

The 75-year-old former hospice nurse from the North Side spent months blogging about her philosophy of life and death at the same time her pain built from ovarian cancer. She engaged her three children and scores of other relatives and friends in conversations trying to help them understand she was OK with dying, and counseled that they should be, too.

Widely admired as an educator since making a midlife decision to become a nurse, Joan was the one coaxing others out of denial of her terminal illness. They were helped by her many jokes about her savings of time and money once she lost her hair during chemotherapy, and about her "loopiness" from reaction to pain medications.

In her final months, which she sometimes referred to with one of her ever-present laughs as "Joan's Journey," she sought to leave a legacy that's unusual in America despite that high volume of daily mortality all around us. Death is a difficult subject most prevalent for the elderly living behind walls of institutional settings, though concealing it is hardly ideal for emotional well-being, noted Stephanie Eckstrom, a social worker who teaches the "Death and Dying" course at the University of Pittsburgh's Bradford campus.

"It's good that we expect people to live, but there's a missed opportunity for conversation -- to have a meaningful dialogue with people that are important to you about what's important," she said.

Joan Baldwin-Branch wanted to lead as many people as possible to face death more honestly, communicate about it more openly, accept it more willingly as a natural and inevitable stage of living.

And to many admirers, Joan succeeded, though her journey took a surprising twist near the end.

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"As I have said before, I am the lucky one. I get to deal with my mortality and I consider that being one step ahead of the rest of you! ... I am blessed by having the time to let everyone know what they mean to me before it is too late."

-- From Joan Baldwin-Branch's blog, meandcancer (joanbaldwinbranch. blogspot.com), Feb. 12

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Exposed often to death as a critical care nurse and personal care home operator before escorting hundreds of individuals through their final weeks once she entered the hospice field, Joan received her own "whacked by a 2-by-4" message, as she called it, in October 2012.

Her boss and friend at Gateway Hospice, Mary Tobin, compelled her to go to the emergency room to have abdominal pains checked out. In tests that day, what had felt like persistent gas was diagnosed as ovarian cancer. It is one of the most deadly forms of the disease, because it is rarely detected before an advanced stage, which was also the case with Joan.

It came as an initial shock for an ever-busy woman still working in her 70s. She had retired from retirement a few years earlier after realizing she had too much she still wanted to contribute. Now she was told she had the type of terminal illness she had been coaching patients and families through since the late 1990s.

"I went, 'Whoa, where is this coming from?' " she recalled recently in the Observatory Hill home she shared with two grandchildren in their 20s, two cats and a dog, Ralph, who likes to escape out the front door to run through nearby woods.

Joan wasn't one to cry about her disease. Friends and relatives had never known her to complain -- not through two difficult marriages, not when raising three children largely on her own while attending nursing school in her 30s, not when giving most of her money away to others she felt had more need for it than she did.

Joan was a classic stoic from a blue-collar Pittsburgh family, disinclined toward self-pity. …

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