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Helping patients through their final moments

Joe Ackerman, shown with a patient at Merrimack Valley Hospice House, said the job has helped him appreciate life. Joe Ackerman, shown with a patient at Merrimack Valley Hospice House, said the job has helped him appreciate life. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)
By Cindy Atoji Keene
Globe Correspondent / September 18, 2011

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As a hospice worker, Joe Ackerman is in the room when patients take their last breath. These moments, he said, are often filled with dignity and grace.

“It is an honor for me to be allowed in these rooms,’’ said Ackerman, 40, an administrator at the Merrimack Valley Hospice House in Haverhill. “You see the best in people at that time, and I leave with a sense of love and spirit that reaffirms life.’’

Patients come to a hospice when a cure is no longer possible for their illness, whether HIV, congestive heart failure, or neurological diseases. For cancer patients, hospice can be a peaceful end to depleting rounds of chemotherapy, and the pain and nausea that follows.

“There is still so much focus on cure, cure, cure,’’ said Ackerman, “and the medical community often has a hard time acknowledging that treatments are no longer working, and can even take away from a patient’s quality of life in the last few months.’’

How did you become interested in hospice care?

I became a medical social worker and eventually worked in oncology. The intimacy that I developed with patients and family really resonated with me. Hospice allows me to walk with patients and family during part of life’s journey.

What sort of patients do you see?

When I started five years ago, we served mostly elderly, but it’s changing. Just recently I visited a 32-year-old mother, with two young kids, who is dying of brain cancer. Sadly, now we also have kids in our pediatric palliative program.

What have you learned working in hospice?

I learn how to appreciate life. Patients will say to me, “Live this day to the fullest. Don’t wait to do the things you want to do.’’ This grounds me. Every day after work, I walk into the house and give my wife and kids a big hug, grateful that I have this time with them.

What sort of questions do families and patients ask?

I get asked a lot, “How much time do they have left?’’ But I don’t have a crystal ball. Families ask about how the patient is handling their last days and are hesitant to talk about death. I try to help them all be ready to move on during a terribly emotional time.

Do you believe in life after death?

I do now. There was a period when I didn’t. But I’ve seen too often where someone dying will have visions of loved ones from the past and say, “My mother or daughter is with me now.’’ It makes me believe that there has to be something there.