Students interview hospice patients for Memory Project

As Evelyn Kent, 85, lies in her bed, LSU students Kristi Harrison and Ellen Rosenow lean over her, a posture made necessary by Kent’s weak voice and the hum of an oxygen machine. It’s their fourth such visit, and for about an hour, they ask her about her life, which a lung condition seems destined to take.

“I’ve enjoyed it,” said Evelyn Kent, 85, of Port Allen. “It brings back memories.”

That is the point. But not the only point.

Since September, St. Joseph Hospice has recruited volunteers from LSU and Our Lady of the Lake College for the Memory Project to interview hospice patients and write a history of their lives. This spring, ten LSU pre-med students, in teams of two, are learning the stories of people they’ve never met. In the end, those families will get a book filled with stories and photos to help them remember their loved one and pass that story on to younger generations.

The families aren’t the only ones who benefit.

The program is designed to give medical professionals experience dealing with people facing their mortality — seeing them not as a list of symptoms, but as individuals with stories all their own.

The personal touch is what drew LSU junior Elizabeth Cooper, of Baton Rouge, and Ellen Landry, of Lake Charles, who have been interviewing Cynthia Duhon, 73, of Baton Rouge.

“We wanted something that was going to … not stick us in the corner at a hospital doing secretary work,” Cooper said. “We knew that was going to be an opportunity to really gauge how good we were with patients who were under some sort of stress, even to prepare ourselves for something that we knew was going to be kind of a rough future.”

By definition, hospice patients are facing a rough future, but not all are at death’s door.

Duhon, who grew up in Youngsville and is a former assistant to the Acadiana legislative delegation, has congestive heart failure and chronic bronchitis.

In June, 2013, she passed out in her home. She woke up in a hospital, and her heart and lung conditions made her a candidate for hospice.

“When I came to hospice, I didn’t tell people I had hospice. I just told them I had home health,” Duhon said. “The reason was the connotation. You say hospice, and, ‘Oh, clean your dress and clean your suit, we’re going to a funeral.’ I didn’t tell anybody I was with hospice for a long time.

“I have good days and I have better days and I have great days. I say every day is a good day because I wake up. When I get out of the bed it’s a great day. If the humidity is OK and the air quality is not too bad, if the allergy level is not too bad and my old body is not too decrepit feeling, I can put on clothes and get out and my daughter can load my scooter on the back and we’ll hit Sam’s or we’ll hit Walmart before anybody is at the store.”

Cooper and Landry have spent recent visits scanning Duhon’s photos into a computer and getting information about them. They’ve recorded their interviews with her and will include that in the memory book they produce.

“We come from different places, so we both kind of relate to different parts of her life,” Landry said. “I’m from Lake Charles, a Cajun, and she talks about growing up in a small town and moving to Baton Rouge, and that’s been interesting from that perspective in a totally different generation. She’s more my grandparents’ generation.”

“It’s been a great experience, because we’ve gotten to know Miss Cynthia so well, and she’s a spitfire,” Cooper said. “We adore her.”

Although Kent’s physical condition has made the interviews challenging, Harrison, of Covington, and Rosenow, of Mandeville, said they have enjoyed learning about her life. Their favorite story is how she wooed her husband, Willie Kent Jr. He died in 1970.

“They would write letters to each other, and I thought that was a really cute courtship,” Harrison said. “Everybody kind of wanted him, and this other girl threw a party for him, and she was, like, ‘Uh-uh.’ She and her future husband just went out to the movies while everybody else was at a party that he was not present for. I thought that was really funny. I was, like, ‘Yes! Get it, girl.’ She won. She got her man.”

Harrison and Rosenow said the Memory Project has re-emphasized their belief in the human side of medicine.

“I just really love caring for people in a very tender way and just hearing more about them, more than their sickness in the stage they’re at right now,” Harrison said. “I’m just a very gentle and caring person, and I enjoy stuff like this, bedside manner and being able to communicate with my patients, things I’ll definitely carry down the road with me. It’s just giving me practice with that, and it’s making me not worry or timid to have a relationship with a patient.”