Hospices promise peace at the end of life—but many don’t deliver

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 E. Martin. A family-practice physician known to everyone as Dr. Bob, the 66-year-old had served the small, remote community in Wasilla, Alaska, for more than 30 years.

But the doctor in charge at Mat-Su Regional Home Health and Hospice wasn’t responding. Staff said that he was on vacation, then that he was asleep. Patricia 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 says, still shaking her head in disbelief, three years later. “It was a nightmare.”

Patricia had enrolled her husband in hospice when the metastatic prostate cancer reached his brain. She expected him to receive the same kind of compassionate, timely attention he had given his own patients. But Bob had the misfortune to require care during a long holiday weekend, when hospices are often too short staffed to fulfill written commitments to families. The consequences, as documented through a review of official records and interviews, were dire.

It took six days and three more calls before he received the liquid methadone he needed. Hospice denied Patricia’s requests for a catheter, and

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