This morning one of our residents, a young man with late-stage cancer, flew home to Central America – back to a country and a family he had not seen since he left 11 years ago. His journey home, which actually began several weeks ago, took a small village of people to make happen.
When Alberto arrived at Joseph’s House from a local inpatient hospice, we knew it was his heart’s desire to go home if there were no treatment options available. Though he was enrolled in hospice care, he was holding out hope that he might be able to enter a research trial at NIH. It was our understanding that no such options existed, but we would learn in the coming days that Alberto did not fully understand the extent of his illness or his options – they had either never been fully explained to him or language barriers kept him from comprehending what he was being told.
Once he arrived, Pat, one of our nurses, communicated at length with his doctors and the folks at NIH to determine if there were any trials for which he qualified. At the same time, we began the process of doing what needed to be accomplished for him to travel home. Lee, our volunteer social worker, worked with Alberto’s embassy to arrange for a passport in less than 24 hours. Another volunteer accompanied him to an oncologist appointment and I began researching flight options. With word that no trials were available, we purchased a ticket with funds provided by a generous donor for just this type of situation. Subsequent communications with folks at NIH raised Alberto’s hopes briefly, but Pat ultimately learned, and communicated to him, that there were no trials for which he would qualify.
While we shared Alberto’s hope for a possible treatment option that might extend his life, we were also eager for him to travel home while his health still permitted if no options existed. On Friday, Pat and Patty, joined by a kind and excellent interpreter from La Clinica del Pueblo, had a long conversation with him to explain fully all that we knew and to confirm that he did indeed want to go home. It was a tender, if not easy conversation. By the end of it, he understood the facts at hand and was even smiling, talking about going home and seeing his mom. He maintained a quiet strength and dignity throughout his short stay with us.
The early morning trip to the airport today was nerve-racking, as the airline surprised us with requirements for additional paperwork that he would need in order to travel. After a few frantic phone calls, texts, and faxes, along with a little gentle pressure, he was set to go and whisked off to security. One of the volunteers accompanying him literally dropped to his knees in prayer until he was through security and on his way to the gate.
As caring a place as Joseph’s House is, we know that in some cases folks would rather be with their families as they near the end of their lives and, if so, that is our wish for them as well. Often, though, that’s just not possible. Today, it was.