Nothing cuts the early morning silence like a pager going off. When you're a hospice social worker, the sound is an electronic SOS. Someone's in trouble! I'm instantly awake. A telephone number flashes on the pager display, giving the room a pale green luminescence. I dial the number, adrenaline racing, wondering what I'm about to walk into at this hour.
"Scott? Is that you?" I recognize our on-call nurse's voice. Usually, she's as calm as a field of untracked snow, but tonight she sounds nervous.
I draw in a deep breath, hoping she'll do the same. "What's going on, Rita?"
"It's horrible. . . . She's bleeding to death."
She gives me the patient's name and a quick rundown: a 35-year-old woman with throat cancer, receiving home hospice care, who has a husband and two kids, ages 8 and 10. A week or two earlier, the tumor broke through the skin on her neck. An hour ago, it tore her carotid artery. Now blood is trickling out, and there's no way to stop it. Rita says she thinks the woman may live another 30 minutes, 45 tops-just enough time for me to get there.
The night air is cold as I walk to my car. I can see my breath rise into the autumn darkness. The stars are beautiful-pinpricks of light through a black canvas. As I start the engine, I think of a story I once read about a Native American people who believed that each star was a footprint left by a soul on its journey into the heavens.
It's tempting to try to distract yourself when…