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The final goodbye

NISSWA — Lila Moen believes the greatest gift of love a person can give is caring for a family member who is dying. It is often an emotionally and physically exhausting experience.

But what does that say about hospice workers like Moen, a Good Samaritan Home Care/Hospice nurse, who care for people in their final days every day?

Some call them angels. Moen has discovered that providing care and comfort for the dying is a job she just can’t leave.

At 71, Moen has been a nurse for most of her life. In May she attended her 50-year class reunion from St. Luke’s School of Nursing in Duluth. She grew up in the small town of Solway and graduated from Bemidji High School. She was inspired to become a nurse by the late Ivy Bud, a Beltrami County public health nurse, who would visit her high school to give students their vaccinations. Bud was always sharply dressed in her blue uniform with gray hair beneath her matching blue nursing cap. Moen couldn’t help but admire her, which led her to a nursing career that so far has spanned five decades.

“She was so kind and put together,” Moen recalled of Bud, whom she personally didn’t know.

Moen started her career working with babies, as an obstetrics nurse, so it is perhaps fitting that she will end her career working mostly with elderly patients at the end of their lives.

But death touches all aspects of nursing, Moen explained. She has experienced death of patients throughout her nursing career. She once held a tiny, premature infant in her hands when the baby passed away. She has held the hands of many patients as they took their last breath, including a young boy fatally injured in an automobile accident whose parents didn’t make it to the hospital in time.

She worked at hospitals in Bemidji, Park Rapids and Detroit Lakes before she and her husband, Harold, moved to Brainerd in September 1973, when she began working as a nurse at Essentia Health-St. Joseph’s Medical Center.

She worked at the hospital for 36 years, working in various positions before she was named head nurse in the emergency department. If there wasn’t a chaplain available, Moen would be the person who would take a grieving family down to the hospital morgue to view the body of their loved one.

She spent many years as a manager of the ER, a position that morphed into managing several other departments. As manager, she helped to open the Pierz Family Clinic in 1986 and oversaw the addition of the Pequot Lakes Family Clinic in 1994 and the Pine River Family Clinic in 1995. In 1998 she helped to open the Crosslake Family Clinic, then later helped with the process of construction and opening of the Pillager and Hackensack Family Clinics.

In 2000, Moen was named director of the six St. Joseph’s Family Clinics.

On June 26, 2009, Moen retired — or so she thought. She stayed home for 10 months before she realized she needed to get out of the house and do something else. She then took a job in the deli at Schaefer’s Foods in Nisswa for 15 months.

“It was wonderful,” Moen said of working at Schaefer’s. “I was only responsible for me. I got to interact with people, it was great fun.”

Then Moen noticed a part-time job for a nurse at Good Samaritan Society Home Care/Hospice in Nisswa. She stopped in, interviewed with director Kayla Farr and was almost immediately offered the job. Farr said she rarely ever does that.

As a hospice nurse, Moen makes sure her terminally ill patients are comfortable, with pain medications or necessary medical equipment, like a hospital bed. But she provides more than that; she is there to lend a shoulder to cry on and to listen to both the patient and the caregivers. She said she wants her clients to know what to expect during the dying process and she’s there to answer any questions they may have during this difficult time.

While hospice itself is designed for patients who have six months or less to live, Moen encourages her patients to live, to do everything they want to do before they get too sick.

“Our goal in hospice is for a peaceful death, but my goal is to keep them living,” Moen explained. “I tell them to plan as if you’re going to be here and not as if you won’t.”

One of Moen’s patients was invited to be honored with an award hours away from her home, but she had decided she wouldn’t go since she was dying.

Moen encouraged her to plan to go anyway and she helped her arrange transportation and other details.

The patient attended the event and had a fabulous time. She also planned a weekend with friends soon after but she did not live long enough to be there.

“Why not live life to the fullest? As long as your pain is controlled, go out,” Moen said she tells patients.

Moen has her own funeral planned. She plans to be cremated and wants her family to host an open house at her home, where they will serve wine and beer. There will be a ceremony in the backyard where her ashes will be scattered.

“It’s going to be wonderful,” Moen said with a smile. “My husband wants the same. Doesn’t it seem more exciting if you’re looking forward to it a little bit? It’s better than being scared about it. ... I’m not saying death is easy. We have become so far removed from death. If we could educate the community that death is a part of life, it is just the other end of the spectrum. Should it be a tragedy? I don’t think so.”

Moen joked that she has few hobbies, except shopping, so it made sense for her to return to nursing during retirement. She feels she learns much from each of her patients.

“I love where I’m at, I love where I’m at in life,” Moen said. “None of us realize how much we gain from each person we interact with. Everyone is so different. We’re not widgets in a box; everyone has a lot to offer.”

Moen said she believes in eternal life but doesn’t push her own religious beliefs on her patients if they do not. She has been in the room when many people have passed away and said she has often felt that moment when the person’s soul has left the body, usually a few minutes before the last breath is taken.

It’s a powerful experience and can be a joyous one if the patient’s body has been ravaged by illness. The patient is no longer sick, but free.

Moen and her husband have three children, 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Moen said she’ll work in hospice for as long as she is able to do it.

“If this person was a relative of mine, what would I want?,” Moen explained of her philosophy behind her work in hospice. “That’s why it is important to me.”