Gina Hooker, a 55-year-old radiology nurse at Erlanger hospital, has seen death up close. She has measured its breath, felt its chill.
Once, while working at a facility dedicated to terminally ill patients, she befriended a man who had tried to set himself on fire.
"He had no family, no visitors," Hooker remembered. "He had had a rough life. His hands were tied to the bed and he couldn't talk."
In an act that can only be described as kindness, Hooker examined the man's chart and let him know honestly that his condition was dire and that he might not ever leave the facility.
"Is there anything you feel like you need to address?" she asked him, humbly.
With that, the man took a pencil and scribbled, "Read the Bible to me."
"The next day, I came to work and he was dead," Hooker said. " Once they make amends to their past it brings a calmness."
Being a nurse is more than checking IVs and updating charts, Hooker believes. It also involves serving patients' emotional and spiritual needs. It has a name, "holistic nursing," and Hooker said Florence Nightingale was its first practitioner.
Hooker was at the bedside of her parents and two siblings when they each passed away. She also spent years caring for patients in Erlanger hospital's intensive care unit, many of whom had failed to give clear directions — called "advance directives" or living wills — outlining their desires for life-prolonging treatment.
Hooker's takeaway is that Americans don't talk enough about death. The result is often indecision and anguish instead of peace and reflection during a patient's final hours.
"About two-thirds of people don't have advance directives, but most people will say they don't want to be kept alive [artificially]," she said. "There's a disconnect. We've dropped the ball."
Hooker, a self-described "mother of five and Nana of 10," believes America's aversion to talking about end-of-life issues is responsible for a growing crisis: too many people dying without dignity.
She is co-founder of a new Chattanooga outreach to nursing homes designed to serve and educate older citizens about end-of-life issues. Doctors often avoid the subject with their dying patients, she says, giving them only vague guidance about their prospects. Meanwhile, clergy often don't have a clear view of a patient's health and can't sense the urgency of the moment, she said.
The collection of volunteers, called the Eternal Life Support Group, was formed to provide "emotional, spiritual and physical support" to people in nursing homes. Hooker used a small inheritance she received after her mother's death to set up the nonprofit organization. She has partnered with Cathy Swafford, a certified life planning facilitator, to lead the organizations.
Hooker said she wanted to answer the questions, "What can I do to make an impact on somebody for eternity?"
"We have lost sight of the 'whole person' and focus just on treating the present problem," she said of modern medicine, "when oftentimes, if the emotional and spiritual needs were addressed, the physical problem is lessened if not alleviated."
The plan is to grow the Eternal Life Support Group in three phases. First comes nursing home outreach; then seminars about advance directives, Medicaid and Medicare reimbursements and funeral planning; and finally seminars encouraging nurses to become patient advocates.
Hooker stresses that the Eternal Life Support Group, despite its name, is not a religious group. Volunteers seek only to provide companionship and information to those who often don't get much human contact, she said. If religion is one of their needs, they will help with that, too.
She tells a story about a woman she met in a nursing home who had lost weight for no apparent reason.
Hooker asked the woman if there was something wrong with the food.
No, the woman said, it's just that her hands shook so much that when she took a bite of food she sometimes soiled her clothes.
Hooker tenderly fed her a meal spoonful by spoonful. It's a nurse thing.
Florence Nightingale would have been proud.
For more information on the Eternal Life Support Group, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact Mark Kennedy at email@example.com or 423-757-6645.