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Bittersweet Good-byes for Retiring Hospice Nurse

Hospital news | Tuesday, January 20, 2009
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Contact: Mardi Ford

Robin Ostermann has poured her life into comforting others. The profoundly deep places of life and death, most of us will visit only once or twice in a lifetime. Ostermann knows them intimately. Monday, she retired from Grande Ronde Hospital after 27 years of service to the community as a hospice nurse. It is no wonder that what she will miss most are her patients and their families.

“Every person handles grief differently,” Ostermann says. “It really is a wonderful journey you share. We become a team. And you make every day the best it can be for your patients.”

Hospice care is not a career path for just anyone. The journey through the bittersweet process of letting go of loved ones, and letting go of life, is a calling. But Ostermann says she can’t think of anything else she would rather have done. In fact, during the 1970s, she and the hospice program came of age together.

Thirty-five years ago, the level of hospice care that exits today was virtually unknown in the United States. It came here from a grassroots movement that began in London in 1968 and made it to the Eastern U.S. six years later. In California in the early 70s, Ostermann was asked to join her good friend and help build what was, at that time, only the second hospice in that state and one of few in the U.S.

So when she and her husband, Rob, later moved to La Grande in 1981, it was a given for her to join what was then known as Union County Home Health. The home health and hospice program was a free standing, not-for-profit agency started by a husband and wife team. Five years later, in 1986, Grande Ronde Hospital bought the agency. Ostermann stayed on.

“The timing was good for the program. It was a good thing (GRH) did when they bought the agency,” Ostermann says.

For nearly three decades, Ostermann has served the families of Union County using her skills as either a home health nurse, when needed, and as a hospice nurse, her first love, to comfort both the recuperating and the terminal.

She explains the difference between the nursing philosophies like this:

“Home health care is a different philosophy – rehabilitation with a timeline. The home health nurse brings particular skills for assessing therapy needs or medication management, for example. With hospice, there is no rehabilitation timeline. The emphasis is on pain management, symptom control and quality of life,” she says.

An explanation which doesn’t address how she is able to give so much of herself away to the dying. Or how she copes with the sadness, the burdens. When asked, Ostermann’s eyes fill with unshed tears and she smiles.

“Sometimes after I leave a patient, I do have to pull over and have a good cry. My faith sustains me. And for those patients who don’t share that faith, there is always something that sustains them. Family, for example. Or a particular hobby or passion, like music. We all have something that gives life meaning,” she says.

For one so deeply embedded in the lives of others, retirement will mean profound change. Although her husband has looked forward to it and her retired friends keep telling her she’ll love it, Ostermann admits to having had second thoughts. As she began the process of clearing nearly 30 years of paperwork from her office—transferring files, following up and letting go, she couldn’t help but wonder if the timing was right.

“Sometimes, I think about it and it kind of washes over me. But I have been rehearsing for it,” she says.

She explains that as she has played a mental game of adjustment. Telling herself, this is the last time I will park here. This is the last time I will shut this gate. Open that file. Or walk through this door.

Ostermann has begun to look forward to bringing those parts of her life put on hold to the front burners. She plans to take time to reflect and meditate on the next direction her life will take. And, of course, she will still care for people as the parish nurse with Presbyterian Church. And play the hand bells.