On any given day, you’ll find Mike Swanson traveling from his home in La Pine, OR to those of his patients throughout southern Deschutes and northern Lake Counties. On a day off from this fulfilling but intensive work, Mike beautifully articulated what it’s like to be a hospice nurse serving a largely rural region.
MMC: A photo you posted on your Facebook page shows a long pumice-laden road that you titled, “A Typical Day at the Office.” Tell me about that day.
Mike: That day began with an hour long drive to Christmas Valley for a routine visit with one of my hospice patients who had just taken a fall. I spent that hour thinking about my patient. Like most rural residents, he is what I call “hardboiled.” Tough. Independent. Resists treatment and is reluctant to take his medications. And somewhat distrustful of the medical system. As always, I planned to approach the subject of his recent fall more as a counselor or consultant, framing suggestions as options he could consider. His wishes and needs would come first. The visit went well and after almost two hours, I was on my way again. On this day, I took Kitty Litter Road, appropriately named for the dunes that are composed mostly of ash and pumice from the eruption of Mount Mazama thousands of years ago. The light and landscape that day compelled me to take a few photos. I take a lot of pictures out there; the skylines are amazing.
MMC: What does the end of your day look like? How do you decompress?
Mike: After seeing patients and charting each visit in their electronic medical record, it’s another long drive back home to La Pine. My phone gets turned off. I read. Play Dungeons & Dragons. Go for a hike. I’m a total geek and fairly active outdoors, so there’s no end to the number of outlets available to me. Also, my future father-in-law gave me a boat as an engagement gift so I’ve greatly enjoyed boating and fishing in the area.
MMC: Tell me about your personal journey that landed you in Central Oregon?
Mike: I grew up in southern California where my father was a first generation software engineer. My parents met while in Bible College and raised me with Christian values and Biblical principles that have served me well. Much of my basic philosophy on life, work, and charity are based on the way I was raised. I was working with disabled children at age 18, and soon became a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA). As a CNA, I learned a lot about myself and how I could make a difference in people’s lives. Even then, my goal was to become a hospice nurse from the time I met one for the first time in Bend, Oregon. Only about 25 percent of my classmates in nursing school were males and most gravitated toward the more technical, less nurturing areas of nursing, which I do have experience in. I think I really shine when I work directly with the public, though. When people ask me how I ended up in Central Oregon, my reply is always the same: I chased a girl here! The job came next, and now that I’ve been married a few months and happily employed as a Home Health and Hospice nurse at Partners In Care, I feel very fortunate.
MMC: What are the most important attributes of a hospice caregiver?
Mike: There are several. Compassion is a big one. It involves listening and giving of yourself unconditionally to alleviate the suffering of another. Connection is at the heart of compassion. It is not an intellectual exercise; and it requires nurturing. Establishing trust is essential. Another attribute is calmness, and being able to project that calm around you. Most of what we do is in advance of a dire situation when we do a lot of teaching and comfort care. That’s when our experience and expertise in this specialty area is important. But there is often a cold feeling at and near the time of death and that is when a hospice nurse must be calm and poised and supportive of the loved ones. Our care for them begins at the finish line of another’s life.
MMC: At the end of the day, how do you sum up your feelings about your work?
Mike: Peace. I’m satisfied that my hard work has made a difference. I never say that I don’t want to go to work. Some may see hospice caregiving in a negative light, as a dark place of death and misery. But most days, I have achieved a great success—whether that be in giving comfort to the dying, imparting knowledge, or just seeing something turn out well. It’s a good life.