Tracey Belliveau: My father’s hospice care at Northampton VA came with compassion — and cats

Wednesday, February 18, 2015
NORTHAMPTON — “I’ve got bad news.” This was the beginning of a phone conversation with my 91-year-old father, Robert L. Belliveau, from his bed in Cooley Dickinson Hospital.

Doctors would not be able to operate on his failing aortic valve. “Hospice” was in the next sentence.

Hospice? Where? How quickly would he have to move? Are we allowed any time to decide where?

A decision needed to be made quickly, and thankfully my father, who lived in Easthampton, was a veteran of World War II. Fate intervened and we ended up at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System.

My father found allies in the hospice unit at the Leeds VA. Going there proved to be the best decision we’ve ever made, because I have never met a more caring group.

As we were in the process of admitting my father in for care, the head nurse of the unit came down and introduced himself. He, too, was a paratrooper like my father and they immediately began talking shop. My father served in the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment and the 82nd Airborne Division. He participated in the Battle of the Bulge and was in the unit considered “Devils in Baggy Pants.” Back in the States, he moved to Easthampton and worked as a fleet manager for Bay State Gas Co. In 1999, he was awarded a high school diploma under Operation Recognition, a program that recognized how wartime service cut studies short for so many Americans.

The connection my father made with his fellow paratrooper was emblematic of the entire experience — each and every staff member took time to talk to my father and connect with him.

I spent 11 days there, all day each day, and was offered my own bed in my father’s room if I felt the need to stay. I was fed lunch and dinner as well so that I could remain in the room.

And then there were Madison and Zoe, the therapy cats who live on the ward. They are Devon Rex cats, a hypo-allergenic breed. These wonderful cats spent most of their time in our room keeping me company and snuggling when I needed it most. I live in Rhode Island and stayed with local friends at night so I was unable to see my own pets. Madison and Zoe were very comforting.

My father passed peacefully on Jan. 18, without pain or discomfort, surrounded by family and friends. As we waited for other family members to arrive, the staff provided us with coffee, tea and snacks.

What’s more, we were honored with a processional when my father was finally transported from the ward. He was covered with a beautiful quilt and each staff member and patient stood in doorways as we passed, paying their respects and saluting.

Northampton should be proud of this VA medical center and its staff. I know I am.

Tracey Belliveau, daughter of the late Robert L. Belliveau, lives in Woonsocket, R.I.