‘No One Is Coming’: Hospice Patients Abandoned At Death’s Door

WASILLA, Alaska — As her husband lay moaning in pain from the cancer riddling his body, Patricia Martin searched frantically through his medical bag, looking for a syringe.

She had already called the hospice twice, demanding liquid methadone to ease the agony of Dr. Robert Martin, 66. A family practice physician known to everyone as “Dr. Bob,” he had served this small, remote community for more than 30 years.

But the doctor in charge at Mat-Su Regional Home Health & Hospice wasn’t responding. Staff said he was on vacation, then that he was asleep. Martin had waited four days to get pain pills delivered, but her husband could no longer swallow them. Now, they said, she should just crush the drugs herself, mix them with water and squirt the mixture into his mouth. That’s why she needed the syringe.

“I thought if I had hospice, I would get the support I needed. They basically said they would provide 24/7 support,” she said, shaking her head in disbelief, three years later. “It was a nightmare.”

The Martins had entrusted the ailing doctor’s final days to one of the nation’s 4,000-plus hospice agencies, which pledge to be on call around-the-clock to tend to a dying person’s physical, emotional and spiritual needs.

Yet the hospice care that people expect — and sign up for — sometimes disappears when they need it most. Families across the country, from Alaska to Appalachia, have called for help in times of crisis and been met with delays, no-shows and unanswered calls, a Kaiser Health News investigation shows.

- KHN