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The following was written before Mr. Traub died on April 23.
Morris Traub is a veteran of World War II who was the bombardier on a B-17 that flew 27 missions over Germany. When the war was over, he returned to the United States, married, raised three children, and started his own used car business, which he operated until his early 90s. He never got past eighth grade, as he helped pay for the schooling of his siblings.
Morris Traub is 95 years old and he is dying.
That is why I have gotten to know him. I am a team physician for Vitas Healthcare, a national hospice with offices in the Chicago area. Mr. Traub has serious heart and lung problems, both of them sufficiently grave to qualify him for hospice care. Though frail and oxygen dependent, he is lucid and lives in an assisted-living facility that provides meals, activities, and physical assistance as needed.
The goal of hospice services is to provide comfort care for people whose life expectancy, as estimated by two independent physicians, is less than six months. A care team consists of a nurse/team manager, a physician, visiting nurses, home health care aides, a social worker, and a non-denominational chaplain. Patients under the care of hospice have almost always elected to forgo aggressive medical care, opting instead to accept only interventions that are designed to alleviate symptoms such as pain and breathing difficulties.
The geniuses who invented hospice, however, recognized that morphine, oxygen, and the like are appropriate to address only some of the needs of the dying. This is the reason each team has the social worker and the chaplain, who sensitize the team members regarding "spiritual" issues that may be causing more psychological discomfort than the actual pain attendant on a patient's disease process. For instance, a longstanding estrangement from a child may be causing considerable distress. With a reconciliation mediated by hospice personnel, I have seen patients' need for narcotic analgesia drop dramatically.
The hospice I work for has added another service that speaks to non-physical issues. In collaboration with a campaign developed by the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Vitas has become a "We Honor Veterans Partner." With this initiative, for which the hospice receives no extra funding, Vitas honors those who have served America in the armed services and effectively addresses the unique needs of veterans during end-of-life care.
Andy Balafas is Vitas' veterans liaison. In addition to educating hospice staff about the varying needs of different groups of veterans (Vietnam vets, for instance, may have far different psychological challenges than World War II vets.), Andy conducts veteran recognition ceremonies for our patients who served in the military. A graduate of West Point, he was an army ranger, serving six years in the military before working in manufacturing for 20 years. I believe he has now found his real life's work, for you would be hard pressed to find a more dedicated, effective representative for the veterans hospice program. I have seen no better match of a person's skills, knowledge, and attitude with a job description.
Andy recently invited me to a "recognition" for Mr. Traub, who lives at a facility whose population includes five other vets (not patients on hospice). His purpose was to present each with a certificate of recognition for his or her service. He opened with the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by an invocation delivered by our team's chaplain. Then he addressed each veteran individually, presenting the certificate with a smart salute. He made a point of saying that, by presidential order, returning a salute while sitting was acceptable.
Morris was quiet during most of the ceremony. His daughter, who works at the facility and attended the event, says he has never talked much about his military experience, but that she knows how important a life event it was. Morris was the last to be recognized. Andy recounted the wheelchair-bound man's service, and asked whether he had anything to say. Of course he did not, so Andy presented the certificate and snapped off a salute. Sitting in his wheelchair with oxygen streaming into his nose, Morris raised his arthritic, gnarled right hand and returned a feeble salute … but a salute it unmistakably was.
After the individual recognitions, the chaplain gave a benediction, followed by a recorded rendition of "God Bless America." Andy closed with Taps, "to honor those who went before us."
Jim Whalen is an Oak Park resident.