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Offering Hope to the Dying

Vicki Barlow and her husband, Brian, live in Pensacola, Florida, where Vicki is the quality manager for Emerald Coast Hospice, and Brian is the pastor of missions at Hillcrest Baptist Church. Prior to living in Pensacola, the Barlows served for 15 years with the International Mission Board in West Africa (Liberia, Sierra Leone, Togo, and Guinea) and the Middle East (Jordan).

How did you come to work for hospice?

When our family returned from Jordan, I wanted to work in a vocation that I felt was a ministry. My mom had been a hospice nurse, but I never thought about that. One day, though, I woke up and felt very clearly that God was calling me to hospice—as clearly as he called us to the IMB. I started as a weekend on-call nurse. I’ve also been the admissions nurse and served as the clinical manager. When my son went to college, I went back to college, too. I finished in 2012, and now I’m in grad school to become a nurse practitioner.

Can you tell me about a day when you found your work particularly meaningful?

When I was working as the clinical manager, we received a referral on a gentleman with an atypical diagnosis. There was question about whether his disease process was terminal or not. When I discussed his case with my medical director, he agreed to a 90-day period of observation. If he did not decline, this would give us time to find other services for him. He did decline, as expected, and when our medical director visited him, actually found the gentleman had cancer. Working with a team that is concerned with the patient, not a traditional diagnosis, is rewarding.

For someone who is going to die, how does having a clear, known diagnosis help?

Most people accept the inevitability that they’re going to die, but I have yet to meet someone who isn’t scared of the process of dying. We help take away that fear by explaining how death happens and what the stages of death are. Also, we take care of their physical, spiritual, and emotional needs. In other words, we offer them hope—not hope for a cure, but hope that they will not have to suffer unnecessarily at the end. When patients come to hospice, treatment cannot save their life, but it can keep them at home with their family.

Each hospice team has a chaplain. Is hospice faith-based?

No, hospice isn’t faith-based. But the government recognizes that there is a spiritual aspect to the process of dying. Our chaplains, however, are not preachers. Their goal is to meet the spiritual needs of the patient—whether that patient is Christian or not. We once had a Buddhist patient, and our staff researched the death beliefs and practices of that faith. While I don’t share the gospel with every patient, I do look for open opportunities when God provides them, much like I did when I was on the mission field.

What’s the biggest obstacle you face in your work?

The biggest obstacle we face is the misconception of hospice. Not only is the general public misinformed, the medical community is, too. Most doctors and nurses have no training in end-of-life care. So when patients come to us, they’re afraid. But they don’t need to be. Death is as natural as breathing. It’s a part of everyone’s journey. To me, this is an untapped opportunity for Christians. Pastors often talk about death and dying at a super spiritual level, but the reality is we’re afraid. We need to prepare people for dying—offering hope, but not false hope.

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