Bill Radcliffe was a consummate cat lover. Sammy, his beloved turquoise-eyed tabby, considered Bill the cat's meow. Bill held Sammy in equally high regard. No wonder then that when Bill learned he was dying, his wife Catherine was determined to let Bill spend his last days in the company of Sammy and the couple's four other cats.
Call that an act of love made possible by KVH Hospice.
Bill, a recently widowed retired meat cutter, and Catherine, a divorced early childhood educator, were living in Fairbanks when they met in 2005 at a holiday dinner hosted by a friend. Those gatherings became tradition.
Three years later, they again found themselves at an Easter brunch with the same friend. "I'd give my air-conditioned seat in hell for even a part-time girlfriend," Bill, lonely after the death of his wife, remarked at one point. Catherine smiled. "Well, I'd be willing to give it a try," she said. He took her to a movie and dinner. They clicked. "Bill was a quiet man and I never stop talking," Catherine says with a laugh. Somehow, the formula worked. By May they were living together. In August, they married.
Bill loved Alaska, but Catherine owned his heart. She yearned to be closer to family in Washington and in March of 2010 they moved to Roslyn. Soon after, both developed coughs. Hers went away. His didn't. In April, he saw a doctor. An X-ray showed a spot on his lungs. A biopsy revealed that Bill, who had smoked for 40 years before quitting, had cancer. That May, he had surgery to remove part of a lung. "We hoped and prayed (the cancer) wouldn't come back," Catherine says. "But we knew it could."
Fast forward to early 2011. Bill, an avid solitaire enthusiast, had trouble shuffling cards. Driving was an issue. Simple tasks became difficult. "Then he could barely dress himself and hardly walk," Catherine says. An MRI in February revealed the worst: He had terminal brain cancer. "As soon as I knew he was dying, I knew I didn't want him in the hospital," Catherine says. "I wanted him to die at home. The biggest thing about Bill was always his cats. I always joked about it. His cats came first. His wife was second."
But Bill hesitated. "I don't know if I want to put that burden on you," he told her.
"That was Bill," says Catherine, who left her job as lead Head Start teacher in the Upper County to care for her husband. "He never wanted to inconvenience anyone."
Enter KVH Hospice, a program that provides in-home support including medical equipment and supplies, medication, 24-hour seven-days-a-week on-call nurses and bereavement counseling.
Shannon McDaniel, an aide, assisted Bill with his showers and hygiene. Kevin Yangas, a KVH Hospice nurse, helped with medication and pain management, guiding Catherine with advice on how to best keep Bill comfortable. Social worker Polly Florence served as a personal sounding board, answering Catherine's questions, providing materials to help her cope with what was happening, and offering information and advice on how to make the arrangements necessary after Bill's death.
KVH Hospice made a huge difference in the quality of the life he had left, Catherine says.
When Bill, a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, learned he was dying, he set one goal: to live until March 18, the 35th anniversary of his sobriety. He made it. Radcliffe celebrated with friends from AA at the group's regular meeting. Catherine served Bill's favorite treat - lemon bars made from scratch.
Although Catherine had rearranged the living room to make space for a hospital bed, Bill slept in his recliner - often with Sammy on his lap - until two days before his death.
On the evening of May 17, Bill's breathing was loud and ragged. It was quarter to midnight when Catherine, dozing in her recliner, suddenly awakened, startled by silence. "It was quiet," she says. "I knew then that he was dead." He was 72.
As it happens, Yangas was the nurse taking calls that night. "He came a little after midnight, pronounced Bill dead, prepared him to be taken away and took Bill's wedding ring off his finger and gave it to me," Catherine says.
Bill's body was picked up for cremation. Later, Catherine shipped his ashes to Alaska where his best friend scattered them at the same spot where Bill had spread the ashes of his late wife.
Catherine, grateful for the role KVH Hospice played in her husband's life, wrote personal "thank yous" to each of the staff members who walked beside her while she cared for Bill. "It's a beautiful organization. I just can't say enough," Catherine says, stroking Sammy. "They were empathetic, kind, thorough - and responsive to all our needs. What I tell people is I hope to God when I need it someone is there to help me die at home with Hospice."