Care for the Dying
Alumni say assisting the dying is a meaningful way to make a living.
When Raney Linck (D.N.P. ’17) tells people what he does for a living, he often gets the same response.
“People say, ‘Oh my God. Isn’t that depressing?’” Linck says about his work both providing end-of-life care and teaching others about it. “But it isn’t. I tell them that when I work with a dying person, I find that as much as I give, I get that much and more back.”
As a second-career nurse, Linck left his job in sales in the late 1990s to return to school in Tennessee for his nursing degree. He says he was in search of a profession where he could make a more positive impact on the world.
“I wanted something that was more important than how many units I sold this month,” he says. “I wanted to feel like I was truly making a difference and contributing to all stages of people’s lives.”
Helping others navigate their life stages—including the final stage, death— means being willing to roll up your sleeves. That kind of work is hard, Linck acknowledges, but it brings with it the opportunity to be a helper and witness to life’s most difficult, and beautiful, moments.
Linck recalls a significant day that cemented his calling: “In nursing school one morning, I attended at a C-section and watched as a baby was delivered into the world. Later that same day, I sat beside a daughter and prayed the rosary with her while her mother died. It was such an honor to be part of both of those moments. I felt connected and of use.”
Like most in the United States, Linck says his original stint in nursing school hadn’t provided him or his fellow students with much training around death and dying. However, Linck had worked as a hospice aide during his training, and the experience, he quickly learned, came in handy in his very first nursing assignments. Linck notes that death is a natural part of life, and in health care professions, it is always there, closer than most of us like to admit.
“When I first went into practice as a med-surge nurse, almost immediately I was dealing with patients in the dying process,” he says. “I was constantly called to bring my knowledge and experience from hospice to the work.”
After a few years spent working as a registered nurse, Linck decided to expand his nursing career, enrolling in the University of Minnesota’s Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP) Health Innovation and Leadership program. His goal? To become a full-time educator and expand nursing students’ knowledge of death and dying.
“I didn’t get much [end of life information] from my own nursing-school curriculum,” he says. “Most people don’t. I wanted to change that.”
Today Linck is a clinical assistant professor in the U of M nursing school’s Adult and Gerontological Health Cooperative. A fierce advocate for end-of-life education, he leads an annual two-day conference on end-of-life care sponsored by Hennepin Healthcare and the Minneapolis VA Health Care System. And though his work at the University keeps him busy, Linck hasn’t left direct care behind: One day a week, he still works as a nurse for Hennepin Healthcare Hospice.
At the University, Linck takes an innovative approach to instruction on end-of-life care.
“Each year, in both our baccalaureate and all of our prelicensure programs, we run a simulation with live actors,” Linck explains. The actors portray patients in the active dying process, while students work to provide appropriate and compassionate care.
The simulation is a challenge for many students, Linck admits, but in the end, he believes any struggle they experience is worth it. Students graduate with a deeper sense of the realities of life—and a nurse’s ability to make a positive impact on patients and families. It’s key knowledge that can only be gained firsthand.
“It is a very lived experience,” Linck says, “a very powerful experience that you can never get from reading a textbook.” And though death isn’t always pretty, it is always meaningful, he says. That’s what keeps him committed to his work.
“It’s a truth I want my students to learn,” he says. “It’s a knowledge I want to pass on.”
Living Well, Dying Well - U of M resources offer support and information
At the Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing, a class called Living Well, Dying Well (LWDW), works to help individuals “regain the language and skills needed to empower, nurture, and care for those at the end of life” and to help individuals and healthcare professionals understand and appreciate the importance of a “good death.”
“Being present with a person at the end of their life is a job description for which everyone is qualified,” says Frank Bennett, Center senior fellow, founder, and program lead of LWDW. “Whether we’re the person facing mortality, a care partner or loved one, a clinician, or staff of a care facility, celebrating these extraordinary moments can open doors to healing, wholeness, and even peace.”
Bennett says the fall class, which has been taught since 2015, is open to both lay individuals and health care professionals, although it will not be offered in 2020 because of an instructor’s sabbatical. The course will resume in 2021.
The program focuses on four areas, including academic curriculum, community engagement, continuing education for health care professionals, and emerging scholarship.
Learn more about this program at csh.umn.edu/wellbeing-organizations/living-well-dying-well
Death with Dignity
Megan Lifto (M.N., ’10, D.N.P., ’15) also isn’t afraid to face death head on. As a palliative care nurse at a long-term, acute-care hospital, she worked side-by-side with her patients and their families as they neared the end of life. Her goal was to eliminate patents’ suffering, both emotional and physical.
When people face a serious or life-limiting illness, many experience what Lifto calls “existential distress.”
“Their soul is like, ‘Why is this happening to me?’” Lifto says. She adds that palliative care—where care is delivered to relieve pain and provide comfort—is designed to help decrease that kind of distress, and “is amazing.”
Palliative care isn’t hospice, but often the people who receive this kind of care are also eligible for hospice care. For instance, palliative care can help manage distressing symptoms of cancer treatments, including anxiety and nausea, to help a patient keep going with treatment.
“It isn’t just about pain medication,” Lifto explains. “It can be about emotional pain. It is based on need. Hospice is where you are deemed terminal, six months or less. But with palliative care, people can survive and [even] get cured with certain cancers.”
At the acute-care hospital, Lifto saw too many situations where family members struggled with the decision to change the focus of care from curative to comfort for their dying loved ones.
“I went into palliative care to make sure no one had a horrible death,” Lifto says. “But I was seeing too many people experiencing these drawn-out, painful endings.”
Last summer, Lifto left her job and launched an education and consulting practice designed to help people plan for and navigate the dying process. Clients contact Lifto for advice and guidance, and she provides a wealth of information and advice, backed up with YouTube videos, e-books, and in-person consultation.
“What I tell people is it is never too early to plan for the end of your life,” Lifto says. When a client facing major end-of-life decisions contacts her, she advises them to take the process into their own hands. “Start meeting with various hospice agencies,” she says. “Look into your healthcare directive. Talk to your loved ones.”
Like Linck, Lifto also continues to work as a hospice nurse part time, caring for dying patients in their homes and in nursing facilities one day a week. She gains so much from the experience that she would never dream of stepping away.
“Working with the dying gives me a sense of my own mortality,” Lifto says. “Knowing I’m not going to live forever has taught me to live my own life with intention. Hospice folks say, ‘Who wouldn’t want to work with the dying? They can teach us such great things.’ It’s a privilege and an honor to do this work. I feel blessed every day.”
Andy Steiner is a freelance writer and author who lives in St. Paul.