Philosopher Bertrand Russell believed that viewing life as a whole was an essential part both of wisdom and of true morality. Although consistent purpose is not enough to make life happy, he said, "it is an almost indispensable condition of a happy life."
It is safe to say, then, that Martha (Marti) Bishop leads a happy life.
Bishop, 69, of Seir Hill Road in Norwalk began her professional life as a music teacher. She switched careers and spent 27 years working in database marketing and international business for major global companies including Xerox, Syntrex, Gestetner and IBM. Then, she said, she got "the calling."
After she retired from her international business career, she entered the seminary to be ordained an interfaith minister for hospice patients.
While she was in the seminary, Bishop, who has been divorced 30 years and has two adult children and a grandchild, volunteered at Mid-Fairfield Hospice as part of her service requirement. She loved the work and felt it was what she wanted to do as she continued on with her own life. Now she works there two days a week.
Mid-Fairfield Hospice, which has offices in Darien, New Canaan, Norwalk, Westport and Wilton, is recognizing her this month because November is National Hospice Awareness Month.
Earlier this year, Bishop was named Outstanding Professional of the Year in Ministerial Services by Cambridge Who's Who, a publisher of executive, professional and entrepreneurial biographies in the world today.
The seeds for Bishop's decision to enter the seminary germinated when her mother died at age 61 in 1976. Her mother had not been feeling well and the doctor decided to admit her to the hospital overnight. She had a stroke and died five days later. The experience of her mother's death heightened Bishop's own awareness of death itself, and the final days of a person's life.
Bishop's mother was "fully conscious and aware up until she died," the minister said. It is that consciousness and awareness that Bishop finds so compelling in her desire to administer to patients in the final stage of their life when the spiritual care takes over as the physical care is no longer effective.
"There comes a time when you stop poking, probing, testing and causing pain, and start to make sure the patient is comfortable, supported as a whole human being, and allowed to die in peace surrounded with love.
"Our focus is on the faith of the patient," said Bishop who travels to nursing homes, hospitals, longterm care facilities and private homes to offer a variety of activities to administer the spiritual care that brings comfort to the patient.
A Reiki master, she will incorporate the Japanese technique with prayer, which is offered within the context of the patient's faith, music and reading scripture. Reiki transfers energy into the patient's body in order to relax the body and nurture the spirit, she explained, adding that surgeons and oncology centers use Reiki to mitigate the chemotherapy.
"It's about palliative care or comfort care. It's about supporting whatever quality of life is possible," Bishop said.
Hospice care usually begins when there is no more treatment. There is nothing more to try and the next step is to provide the comfort care.
Bishop praised the work of Mid-Fairfield Hospice's other interfaith minister, the Rev. Karen S. Judd, for making spiritual care very much an integral part of patient care.
"I've always believed in the consciousness beyond the physical," said Bishop, who has always been interested in philosophy, spirituality and mysticism.
"I love doing rituals," she said, "because rituals help make something sacred. In some ways, in this culture, we lost how important rituals are."
At the stage at which Bishop enters a patient's life, she said there is usually the acceptance that there isn't any cure. Therefore, the focus is to maximize the quality of life as long as possible. Nowadays there is a greater recognition in the medical community that there comes a time to focus on comfort, not cure.
Bishop will spend from 20 minutes up to two hours visiting with 15 to 20 patients, once a week every other week or once a month. With a new patient, the purpose of the first visit is to make a connection with the patients. She begins with getting acquainted to determine their concerns, fears and level of spirituality in their lives.
"You get into a rhythm with the patients as to what comforts them."
As part of her work, Bishop interacts with the patient's family members and other caregivers, including the doctor, nursing care and social workers. It's a team effort.
As the patient becomes comfortable with the interfaith ministry, Bishop finds her own life experiences, especially her international business travel in which she had to conduct business with people in other cultures, become a foundation in establishing a common ground with her patients. The patients often begin to talk about the places and sites they both know.
"All of this builds relationships," said Bishop, noting how her travels have created a broad vision of the world and its people, helping her to comfort people "different than me."
Bishop recalled some of her most challenging work when she held positions at such global companies like Xerox and IBM, yet for her, "sitting beside the bed of a dying patient and learning the process of just being there with the dying patient is some of the most important work I have ever done."
Bishop said that in this country people are fearful of death.
"We don't talk about it. We don't see it as part of a natural cycle. When you're still chasing a cure, we let a lot of people die in pain," said Bishop, whose father died at age 87 in 1997.
He had a long history of heart trouble. She said all of his siblings and his parents lived into their late 80s and 90s and she hopes she is as fortunate.
Usually hospice services begin in the expected last six months of a person's life. However, Bishop said, "We have patients who get better and are no longer qualified for hospice." She said a lot of their improvement has to do with the nurse care management, social worker and the interfaith ministry.
Commenting upon the kinds of illness that afflicts the patients she sees, Bishop said many have Alzheimer's or suffer from dementia.
"They have a kind of child-like wonder about them and I love them," she said.
Christine Pfeffer, Mid-Fairfield Hospice director, pointed out that she has been noticing an increase in brain tumors among younger people, particularly among people between 35 and 54 who have young children. Pfeffer said she doesn't know why this is occurring, except by "the time you get the symptoms or become aware of the symptoms it is too late. She said the same situation occurs with pancreatic cancer, which often goes undetected until it is too late.
"Sixty-five percent of Hospice patients do not have cancer," Pfeffer said. "Cancer is almost a chronic disease. We learn to live with the cancer."
Years ago, she had seen childhood cancer everywhere. But now, with the strides in research, children are surviving their cancers. Other common afflictions include cardiac and respiratory disease.
Pfeffer, former director of hospice at Greenwich Hospital and former director of clinical Services at Stamford Visiting Nurses, has been in the nursing care industry for more than 30 years. She believes that doctors do not prepare patients for the end of life stage. When doctors tell their patients they can do nothing else for them, the patients feel abandoned.
"We have the gift of walking the last mile with them," said Pfeffer of the role that Mid-Fairfield Hospice plays in people's lives. She also believes with the work that hospice does, "We have the privilege of helping people become better doctors."
Mid-Fairfield Hospice offers two programs; pre-hospice care and hospice care. Currently it serves 60 patients in the two programs.
This past year, Mid-Fairfield Hospice had made more than 10,000 visits in the community and cared for 230 hospice patients. In addition, it held more than 41 support groups and community workshops with more than 438 attendees. Its volunteer base contributed 2,300 hours of service.
A partner with Nursing & Home Care, Mid-Fairfield Hospice is a Medicare-certified and state-licensed hospice organization. Together the agency provides professional nursing and support services, rehabilitation, counseling, health education, community wellness programs and compassionate hospice care for individuals and families throughout Fairfield County. As a non-profit organization, Mid-Fairfield Hospice depends on the support it receives from corporations, foundations and individual contributions.
With November marking "National Hospice Month," Bishop reflected upon how her experience as an interfaith minister working with hospice has changed her.
Bishop said, "It has made every day, even the bad ones, that much more precious. There is always a communication and a connection at some level of consciousness."
As she nears her 70th birthday at the end of the month, she said that she will continue with her interfaith ministry work with hospice until she is 75 and then decide whether or not she will continue with the work or do something else as she continues to lead her own purpose-driven life.
Overall, her work with hospice has made her less fearful of death. "For me, death is a natural part of the life cycle because I believe we are spirits that have a human conscious," Bishop said.
For information about Mid-Fairfield Hospice, or to volunteer for any of its programs, call 1-800-898-HOME or log on to www.visitingnurse.net.