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Bill and Tomi Gallagher (Photo:  Lou Reuter, Adirondack Daily Enterprise)
Bill and Tomi Gallagher (Photo: Lou Reuter, Adirondack Daily Enterprise)

The Hospice Path: Helping the helpers

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When a patient enters a hospice program at the end of their life, a lot of the focus is on their experience, their choices, and their preparations for death.

As part of our on-going series, called the Hospice Path, we've been profiling Bill Gallagher.

He began working with High Peaks Hospice after doctors told him that his lungs were weakening and couldn't be treated.

This morning, Brian Mann shifts the focus to Tomi Gallagher, Bill's wife. They've been married and caring for each other for nearly seven decades.

Tomi Gallagher says hospice is now offering her important help, while she and her husband navigate this difficult transition.

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Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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When I go to see Bill and Tomi, she’s the one who meets me at the door. 

"Hi, Brian, good morning, good morning!"

Tomi is a small woman, always stylishly dressed.  A couple of weeks ago, she and Bill celebrated their sixty-sixth wedding anniversary.  

But these days she’s tracking another milestone in their lives – using a little book given to her by hospice, she records all the things that need to be done through the course of each day.

"It's called a communication book and this is what I do," she says.  "I put down who comes on behalf of hospice. And these are all the meds here."

When Bill’s doctors diagnosed his lung ailment, they said he had roughly eighteen months to live.  

That means Tomi is on the front lines, caring for him as he weakens, offering support.  She says she needed help and wanted some assistance from outside her own family.

"You don't like to burden anybody," she says.  "There are certain nitty-gritties that we'll unload on [hospice workers] that you wouldn't unload with your family."

Ryan Mellon is a social worker with high peaks hospice, part of the team that offers the Gallaghers support and guidance and resources every week.

"This is not an easy time," he says.

Ryan says working with families and spouses is one of the most complex and challenging parts of his job – helping them understand and cope with what’s happening.

The Gallaghers have seven kids and they’ve spent a lot of time home with their parents since Bill’s condition worsened.

But Ryan says even for families like this one, having more connections, more people to talk to, can change the entire experience.

"We're all so isolated, you know.  Even if we are very connected to our families, that isolation breeds embarassment and shame about what's going on."

Tomi Gallagher has cared for her husband before, traveling with him to a veterans hospital in Oklahoma after he returned, injured and deaf from World War 2, injured and deaf.

"If anyone just walked through a VA hospital, they'd all be pacifists," she says.

They’ve lived an incredibly full life together since – raising seven kids.  Tomi spent years as a professional pianist – often playing at venues around the North Country. 

She played one night when Tom Brokaw was there," says her husband Bill. 

Despite her vigor and her obvious care, Tomi acknowledges now that caring for Bill is sometimes more than she can handle.

"I get tired," she says.

 Tomi’s daughter Gail has been home over the summer visiting.  She says the basic chores that hospice took off their mother’s shoulders made it possible for their father to stay at home.

"Somthing that could appear to be very simple, to figure out the pills that dad needs to take, that used to be Mom's responsibility," Gail says.

Tomi says helping Bill through this time has made her more aware of her own mortality – the fact that her own life is nearing an end.

"Oh yes, definitely," she says.

I ask her if it's frightening, but she laughs and shakes her head.  "I think making choices, what hymns do I really like? It's that kind of basic thing.  I had to show [my daughters] my gown."

"So you've chosen what you want to be laid to rest in?" I ask.

"Oh yes, it's lovely."

Tomi’s daughter Gail says that humor, that openness, reflects her mtoher’s spirit, but also the spirit of hospice.  

"I mean, we do talk about death in terms of planning," she says, "but most of the time it's 'What are you going to do today, or what plans do you have or what's the next thing?"

Next week:  Looking at the doubt and depression that are a natural part of the end-of-life experience.

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