Testimony of Fred West
Assistant Principal, Ocean Township High School, Oakhurst, New Jersey
Before the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee
New Jersey State Legislature
May 28, 2009

Thank you, Chairman Vitale, Vice Chairman Weinberg, and members of this committee for the chance to testify about the incalculable value of our nation’s nurses. I have seen first-hand how dedicated, compassionate and skilled nurses can make all the difference. In my case, our nurses allowed my mother-in-law to maintain her health—and her dignity—through a courageous battle with liver cancer—and allowed our family to love her and meet her needs in her final weeks and months.

This is an important hearing, for our State and for the country, and I’m honored to tell you my story.

I am an assistant principal at Ocean Township High School in Oakhurst, New Jersey, a very diverse small town of about 28,000 people near the Jersey Shore. I have known and worked with nurses all my adult life. My sister was a nurse, and I supervised our five school nurses from 1991 to 1997. From these extraordinary individuals, I gained an understanding of the hard work that is nursing and a deep appreciation for the care they give their patients.

My understanding and appreciation of the value of nursing deepened in August 2007, when my 90-year-old mother-in-law noticed a growth in her abdomen. Soon after, she was diagnosed with cancer. Her physician planned to remove the tumor in the fall of that year. On the morning of the surgery, however, a sonogram revealed that the tumor had grown so large that the surgery represented too great of a risk. We called off the surgery.

Two options were offered: chemotherapy and radiation therapy, or going home to let mom’s disease follow its natural course. Mom wanted to be in her home.

To help us make the best choice for Kathi’s mom, I spent a lot of time talking to Marjorie Forgang, Director of Visiting Nurse Association of Central Jersey (VNACJ) Hospice Program. Marjorie guided us through the hospice process and stayed in touch throughout the entire time. Shortly thereafter, we were introduced to Peggy Lasoff, RN, a hospice nurse who works for VNACJ. She met with Kathi’s mom for a complete nursing assessment and then met with our entire family. She told us that she could help manage mom’s pain and for the time she had left, maximize her quality of life. Using a holistic approach, she utilized resources from an interdisciplinary team that included nurses, home health aides, therapists, social workers and spiritual counselors.

Mom’s care was centered on our family’s wishes and our needs. In the five months that VNA’s staff cared for my mother-in-law, they brought nothing but compassion and comfort to her. For our family, they were as close to angels as one could ever imagine.

Peggy arranged for my mother-in-law to have a certified home health aide—Betty Love. Ms. Love, who was aptly named, first began providing care for my mother-in-law in February 2008 on a part-time basis. She came to the house three times a week for two hours a day and saw to it that Kathi’s mom was fed, bathed, dressed and comfortable. Peggy kept a close eye on the status of her health and comfort, and replenished supplies and medications as needed.

To my mother-in-law, the presence of her nurse and home health aide was more than the sum of those parts; they offered consolation and companionship at the most emotionally challenging times in her life.

Their help also meant a great deal to my wife, our two daughters, and of course to me. The nurse was able to anticipate how the cancer would progress and discuss it with us ahead of time, reducing our fear and anxiety. She was able to manage my mother-in-law’s pain and other symptoms. Without the services of a visiting nurse, my wife would have had to take a leave of absence from her job to care for her mother. And she would have had no relief from the demanding physical and emotional work of caring for a dying parent.

My daughters and I also benefited tremendously from the relief the nurses provided. I felt that one of the most important lessons for my daughters to learn was that we did not have to go through this difficult time alone—there were people who cared and wanted to help. Peggy was able to assess all our needs and recommend the appropriate intervention ranging from additional nursing care, increased home health aide assistance, scheduled visits from the social worker for emotional support and family guidance, and the comfort of spiritual counseling.

Peggy was especially helpful as my mother-in-law’s condition deteriorated. She arranged for continuous care by LPN Barbara Olivacz to ensure she was comfortable at all times. Knowing that she was receiving the best care possible enabled us to take breaks from the round-the-clock work of caring for her. We could take time to dine out together, sleep in our own beds and step away from the emotional stress of seeing someone you love deal with a terminal disease.

My mother-in-law passed away in June of last year, after five months in the care of Peggy and her colleagues at the Visiting Nurses Association of Central Jersey. Watching her die was an extremely difficult experience but we were comforted by the fact that she was able to spend her last months at home with the people she loved most in the world. That would never have been possible if we had not been able to rely on the nurses and the hospice team who provided such quality care.

Their skill, support and compassion enabled my mother to pass in peace and comfort and helped my family share her end of life journey together. My family and I will be eternally grateful.

I can only hope that when others experience the loss of a family member, or face death themselves, they are able to do so with the guiding hand of a nurse like Peggy. I share the concern that the looming shortage means a nurse will not be there for everyone who needs one in the future.

That is why I am here today: to offer my full support for efforts like the New Jersey Nursing Initiative, which will help ensure that nurses will be there for all of us.

Thank you.