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Bill Gallagher as a young soldier in the 10th Mountain Division (Photo provided)
Bill Gallagher as a young soldier in the 10th Mountain Division (Photo provided)

The Hospice Path, Part Two: Nearing the end, celebrating a life lived in full

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Last week, we began a new on-going series called the Hospice Path.

North Country Public Radio is looking in-depth at the way hospice programs across the region are changing people's lives at a time when they're forced to confront the certainty of death.

We're telling that story in part by spending time with the Gallagher family in Saranac Lake.

Bill Gallagher is 87 years old and his lungs are slowly failing.

But with the help of High Peaks Hospice, he's been able to stay at home with his wife Tomi.

In order to better describe their experience, our reporter Brian Mann decided to first spend some time asking about Bill's long life before he got sick.

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Bill and Tomi Gallagher celebrate their 66th wedding anniversary on Friday.  (Photo:  Lou Reuter, Adirondack Daily Enterprise)

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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The other day I was over at Bill and Tomi Gallagher’s for lunch and their oldest daughter Gail said something interesting.

"Most people think hospice is for someone who’s on death’s door," she pointed out.  "They think hospice is the kiss of death, when actually it’s open arms to life."

I’d been thinking that to tell the story of the Gallaghers’ experience with hospice, I would have to tell at least something about all that life and the things brought them to this point.

I want you to have at least some sense of them as people and a family – not just patients or clients.   

So sitting on their sun porch, Tomi Gallagher pulled out a big thick album of photographs and press clippings.

They go right back to the time when Bill was a drop-dead-handsome football player at Princeton in the Forties.

"That was at the railroad station," he said, pointing to a snapshot.

"Oh yes, this is when he left for the service," Tomi agreed.  "I was going to hitch a ride with him.

Bill still has a pair of his old ski boots from his years with the 10th Mountain Division in World War II. 

"Your crampons fit nice onto that, too," he pointed out.  "It has a groove on the front."

It turns out Bill was part of the fabled ski and mountaineering force that was formed to drive the Germans out of Italy.

Working a thirty caliber machine gun, and marching near a mortar installation, began the hearing loss that still bothers him today. 

Bill also suffered a leg wound and was eventually pulled off the front lines.  He says that injury — his "million dollar" injury — probably saved his life.

Carrying his portable oxygen tank, Bill still goes every year to the memorial ceremony held for the 10th Mountain division at Whiteface Mountain. 

"It’s really to think of the guys who are no longer here," he says.  "Especially the guy who took my place.  He was killed. It’s in memory of those guys."

This experience in hospice isn’t the first time that Bill has wrestled with what it means for some people to die and what it means for other people to be left behind. 

"I was plagued with guilt, kind of screwed up in my head," he acknowledges.  "I felt kind of guilty that the guy who took my place was killed."

“Do you still feel guilt about that?” I ask.

"I still think about it.  When I went to Oklahoma and the hospital [after coming home from Europe]...a psychologist helped me walk through this and it helped me."

In the decades after the war, Bill and Tommy managed to build a great life in the North Country.

They had seven children and he taught history at Saranac Lake high school.

"One of my favorite questions if I gave a reading assignment was [telling my students] to come to class with questions that are not answered in the readings," he says.

After retiring from the district, Bill started a mentoring program for kids.

He was active in the Catholic church and even went in for politics, spending two terms as Harrietstown supervisor.

"I'm a Democrat," he laughs.  "There's not much of a future for Democrats here."

Perhaps the most remarkable accomplishment in Bill’s life is his marriage.  This coming Friday, he and Tommy will celebrate their 66th wedding anniversary. 

The two of them still joke and tease, like the young couple standing on that train platform half a century ago.

"Cranberry juice or decaf tea?" Tomi asks.

"Cranberry juice!  I found out it’s good for your teeth!" he says.

"No, it’s good for your bladder!" 

This summer their house in Saranac lake has been filled with family reunions. And Bill got to go play one more round of golf with his sons, a trip that hospice helped organize. 

But sitting in his big comfortable chair, with a tube feeding oxygen to his tired lungs, he says it s really hard letting so many wonderful things go.

"Here I am I can hardly walk," he says.  "Some of the flashbacks of some of the things I did, it doesn’t seem right."

Bill’s daughter, Gail, says Bill Gallagher's willingness to confront and talk about these hard things with honesty is one of the reasons hospice was such a perfect fit for their family.

"Mom and dad have always been very open-minded and very open hearted," she says.

"And so the philosophy of hospice to live life fully until its time to go from this earth is very much the way mom and dad have lived their life."

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