‘Precious farewell’

Louis Richard’s grandmother, Elrita Bertrand, was dying of a malignant brain tumor when he left for Belgium to begin studying for the priesthood.

He went to tell her goodbye until they saw each other again. She shook her head no.

“She kept wanting to tell me something,” he says of his grandmother, who was having trouble speaking. “Then I realized she was telling me that we wouldn’t see each other again, that this was the last time. That for me was such a precious farewell.”

Seven months later, his beloved grandmother died. Coming home for the funeral would have been expensive, and, while his family was willing to buy his ticket, he declined the offer.

“I told my mom I’d come home if she needed me, but that we had said our goodbyes. I have a very peaceful feeling about that,” he says.

That experience led Richard to get involved with hospice, which provides supportive care to the terminally ill. And it was his help in founding Hospice of Acadiana 30 years ago that led to him receiving the Jefferson Award for Public Service at the 2013 awards ceremony in Washington, D.C., in June.

The awards were created in 1972 by the American Institute for Public Service as “a Nobel Prize for community and public service” in the U.S. The idea behind them is that one person can make a difference, and the awards honor national history-makers along with grass-roots “unsung heroes.”

“I was very humbled, shocked most of all,” says Richard, 57, who serves as pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church in Broussard as well as chancellor of Lafayette’s St. Thomas More Catholic High School and St. Cecilia School. “Of course I’m biased, but Hospice of Acadiana is a wonderful organization, and I’m glad it was getting some recognition.”

About a month after his grandmother died, Richard attended a symposium “On Death and Dying” conducted by Dr. Cicely Saunders, founder of the modern hospice movement and a contemporary of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, a pioneer in the study of death and dying.

“I found it very enlightening … maybe because death was very fresh to me,” recalls Richard, who went on to spend six weeks working with Saunders at her St. Christopher’s Hospice just outside London.

“She (Saunders) noticed that once a patient was diagnosed as terminal they were given up on, sort of treated as stepchildren and put in the back of every hospital, and she said that’s not right,” explains Richard. “Once we reach the part where we can admit that it’s fatal … and that’s not easy, Dr. Saunders found there’s a lot we can do.”

Saunders is credited with how chronic pain is handled in terminally ill patients.

“It used to amaze me when I’d read a patient’s chart or listened to the nurses during rounds and hear what a patient was battling … this patient who I’d just fed breakfast to, given a bath. I never guessed they were in such pain because of the success of the pain management, but they never appeared ‘doped up.’”

St. Christopher’s was a beautiful setting, too. The patients all looked out windows “reminding them they’re connected to all of that.”

So what can a family member or friend say or do to help?

“The gift of your presence is usually enough,” explains Richard. “I learned long ago that I don’t have the answers, and they really don’t expect me to. If they’re ready to talk about death, they’ll let you know. They’re probably more at peace with that thought than their family or others (are).

“For me to see the great deal of care and compassion shown these patients … it’s the opposite of what you’d expect,” he continues. “I was visiting with people for whom life was most real and very precious.”

And bringing the experience of death with dignity back to his hometown of Lafayette once he finished his studies in Belgium was a priority with Richard. A mutual friend who knew of his work with St. Christopher’s put him in touch with people who were interested in starting a hospice.

Hospice of Acadiana opened its doors to its first patients in February 1984. Since that time, it has cared for more than 16,500 people and their families.

“The secret to a successful hospice is pain management, and the ability to understand and treat it appropriately,” says Richard, who rotated off the board five years ago after 25 years of dedicated service. “That and treating the whole family. That’s the beauty of Hospice of Acadiana. It uses that interdisciplinary approach very well.”