My Fellow Americans: Catherine Gallogly, Hospice Worker

Chicago Public Radio's Jenny Lawton profiles hospice worker Catherine Gallogly. This piece is part of a project called "Daily Meaning: Life Inside America's Service Industries," developed in cooperation with Chicago Public Radio. And it's part of Day to Day's "My Fellow Americans" series, spotlighting the extraordinary lives of ordinary Americans.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

That massive earthquake over the weekend in Pakistan, the horrors of Hurricane Katrina--there's a lot of news these days about people dying. Of course, most people die much more quietly. But still, they need attention. As part of our occasional series My Fellow Americans, here is Chicago hospice worker Catherine Gallogly.

Ms. CATHERINE GALLOGLY (Hospice Worker): Once somebody said, `What do you do for a living?' and I was like they wanted to guess and I was like, (whispering) `I see dead people,' and they (laughs)--they were a little creeped out, but you know, it's just--I think I'm just a regular person who's there to just walk the journey with you, and I can only walk so far and then you have to go on for the rest of it yourself. I just see myself as somebody walking the path with you--something that I'm really cognizant of when I work, that people work hard to die. And dying is hard work. Just like when a woman's laboring to bring a baby into the world, it's the same way when you're leaving the world. And sometimes it's hard to sit with that. You're seeing people at their rawest part of life. I guess it would be depressing if I thought that I just take people and nothing happens, so maybe that's part of my belief system. But it's really profoundly touching and very intimate to be able to be there at that moment with people.

Death at home is not--I mean, even though it's natural and beautiful, I think what's shocking for a lot of people--it is not like the television version where everybody on TV dies with their mouth closed, looking still lovely. You know, their color changes. And I want to say it's not--it isn't pretty, but for me it's like the reality of it. You know, you get to see really life in its reality instead of, you know, if you only see death on TV it'd be quite horrifying for you.

We're all dying, if we're realistic. But it's about really helping you maximize whatever you have and work with your symptoms, to maximize what you can do for the rest of your life. And I've had people that once their pain had gone away, their biggest thing is they wanted a cocktail at 6:00 at night--you know, a martini. And I'm like, `Go for it!' Or they'll say, `You know what? You made it possible for us to go out to dinner again,' and they're so happy.

I still had one couple--was pretty hysterical--his--when he finally got a hospital bed it was in the living room, and he slept nude. And so his wife was by him and she was real teary-eyed and I said, `What's wrong?' And she goes, `Well, we've never slept apart, like, in 50-some years.' And so I said to the guy, `Well, move on over and let her in,' and so she crawled in bed with him and the two of them just had a blast, and to witness that and to see them laughing and they talked about all sorts of things, and then their son was going to be coming home. They're like, `Oh, God, could you see if he sees us now,' because, you know--and I said, `Well, you know, why don't you take your top off and you can both be naked,' and they were howling and giggling, and you know, it takes away the disease part, you know, because here's people that were once young lovers and, you know, had a family and--you know, and that was ending, you know, and to just see that. But we must have laughed for a half-hour.

Well, there's just certain people you meet and they just touch your heart, and you know why you're there, but you kind of forget it. So you kind of get used to, like, well, we're going to be, you know, doing this, and then you're all of a sudden like, `Oh.' I think that was the biggest shock, that you'd fall in love and then you're--grieving. You know, you go like, `I'm a professional. I'm here to do a job,' and they just grab your heart. So you know, that part you have to kind of get under control because you can't--because you really miss them.

I actually think the most blessed point is right after the person dies if you actually stay with the body and just sit with it. I just--actually, that to me is like the most natural part of the whole process. I really love that part. It's wonderful to be able to just--to rub their forehead or touch their hands or to be by them because that is still the person. I mean, it's like the shell of the person but it's still there. I actually feel like it's a transitioning moment. I can just feel the person's--they're around people, and it's my closure time. It's that time where I will sit and just quietly pray for the family.

What happens then is we usually just bathe the body--actually to honor them and show them respect--I think--is to do that. For me it's a really good ritual to say goodbye.

CHADWICK: Catherine Gallogly's story was produced by Jenny Lawton. It's part of a multimedia exhibit called Daily Meaning: Life Inside America's Service Industries, developed in cooperation with Chicago Public Radio.

DAY TO DAY continues.

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