WENTWORTH — In April 2021, the Rev. Marcia McQueen received a sobering diagnosis. Tests showed her out-of-the-blue, stroke-like symptoms to be the result of a brain tumor.
Most people receiving this diagnosis would have been completely overwhelmed and unsure of what next steps to take.
But that is where McQueen’s more than 30 years in healthcare chaplaincy gave her a tremendous advantage.
She immediately put into practice what she had encouraged patients and families to do for decades: she started making plans, she said.
McQueen, of Eden, spent four years with Hospice of Rockingham County (HRC) as one of the organization’s chaplains & bereavement coordinators and another 14 as chaplain at Morehead Memorial Hospital, now UNC Rockingham Health Care.
“I spent a large percentage of my hours and focus on advance-care planning, holding end-of-life family conferences, and attempting to help patients and families distinguish between life-prolonging measures and death-prolonging measures – because one becomes the other eventually,” McQueen said in a recent interview.
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Some of her earliest planning saw the 67-year-old talking with her physicians. Her conversations typically began with McQueen stating, “I want to tell you some things …” In addition to making her thoughts and wishes known to her medical providers, she sought input as well, she said.
McQueen talked with her primary care physician, her oncologist, and HRC’s palliative providers, including Dr. Ken Karb and Dr. Jim Parsons.
She had worked with Drs. Karb and Parsons while a hospital chaplain and valued their input, she said, especially since they have become medical director and associate medical director for HRC.
“At several points, decisions need to be made and after weighing benefits and risks, you have to choose what will be most helpful to you in your illness and journey,” McQueen said.
McQueen was very open to the knowledge that her tumor was likely incurable and life-limiting. She asked her medical team for guidance on when it was time to shift her focus.
“I wanted to know when it was time to move from curative treatment to symptom control – to keep me comfortable and give me meaning in the days I have remaining.”
As part of her planning, McQueen enlisted the support of HRC’s newest service line: Serious Illness care, palliative care which focuses on patient comfort rather than curative measures.
“Though I had worked for Hospice of Rockingham County years ago and was well aware of the good services they provide, I was pleased to learn they had added a palliative program – and this is available long before hospice services are appropriate,’’ McQueen said.
Months of care under HRC’s Serious Illness program allowed McQueen’s providers to become aware of her medical history and to hear her wishes and plans for her end-of-life care.
They knew of her advance directives and desire to eventually transition to hospice care.
McQueen’s planning left no detail to chance. She established her healthcare and durable powers of attorney and her living will, spelling out her wishes related to her health care.
She even planned her funeral service down to the last detail, including who would officiate her service and what music would be played.
McQueen continued to encourage people to share their thoughts and let family and friends know what a “meaningful death” looks like to them.
The return on investment for McQueen’s months of planning was peace of mind, she said. While she was prepared, her plans ensured friends and family were prepared as well.
Details, such as the location of important documents, were known to those in charge of McQueen’s estate, and she asked friends what personal items they might like to have. It gave her pleasure to know that “these things I’ve loved and cherished will still have meaning,” she said.
After McQueen’s diagnosis, there was plenty of quality time spent with many members of her “tribe”— as she called her family and friends. A few close friends from college days were fondly referred to as members of her “sista-hood”.
Beach trips, day trips, and parties at her Eden condo made for lighter days.
McQueen advised, “Look at what’s on your bucket list. Some things may have to be cancelled or downsized, but you can still plan things to anticipate to keep your spirits up!”
In late May 2022, McQueen experienced a severe increase in her symptoms and after consults with her medical providers – again bringing HRC’s medical staff into the conversations – decided to forego additional treatment.
Essentially calling in her own hospice referral, McQueen transitioned from Serious Illness care to hospice care on May 27th.
“Hospice care relieves family and friends from having to provide physical care and allows them to simply be family and friends—and they don’t have to help you with activities of daily living,” McQueen pointed out.
Once admitted to HRC’s Gibson House, McQueen enjoyed a steady stream of tribe members dropping by to visit.
“You can have a party at Gibson House just like you can at home,” she said with a grin.
Last weekend, McQueen had a great time with visits from friends and even a slumber party on Friday night, complete with milkshakes and a Hallmark Christmas movie.
At peace and in comfort, Marcia died peacefully on the morning of June 7th.
Collins is Director of Business Development & Marketing for Hospice of Rockingham County.