Boy’s heartfelt gift helps soothe the dying

MIDDLEBURY — It was during a warm July day last year that a grief-stricken, 10-year-old boy came into Porter Hospital clutching a coin-filled Ziploc baggie. He walked up to the front desk, handed the baggie to a volunteer, and simply walked out the door.
The volunteer took the money over to the hospital’s development office, where the mysterious $6.19 donation was counted and recorded. But the question remained — who gave the money and for what purpose was it to be used?
Thus began Porter Hospital’s search, through a letter to the editor in the Addison Independent, which ultimately paid dividends. The mystery donor’s mom, Rebecca Bertrand of Whiting, read the letter and knew that it spoke of her son Carson’s selfless act. He had been anguished by the death of his aunt and spontaneously sought donations at school that he hoped would lead to the creation of a place where dying patients could be made comfortable during their final days.
“I had no idea he was doing it,” Bertrand said of her son’s grassroots fund drive.
“I’m proud of my son; I’ve always raised him to ‘pay it forward,’” she added.
Less than a year later, Carson’s modest $6.19 investment in a noble dream has paid huge dividends.
Porter Hospital is putting the final touches on “The Estuary,” a new palliative care suite inside the main hospital building that will dispense comfort care to dying patients and some basic amenities to their loved ones. The suite is a collaboration between Porter and Addison Respite Care Home Ltd., a nonprofit organization that supports end-of-life care for terminally ill patients unable to complete their lives at home. Porter Hospital spokesman Ron Hallman said Addison Respite Care Home (ARCH) provided a $46,000 anonymous donation for major funding of The Estuary.
“I feel that if it wasn’t for my $6.19, they wouldn’t have been able to finish it,” Carson Bertrand said playfully during a phone interview last week.
The Estuary has been fashioned from a former medical-care patient room and a small, adjacent waiting area. Those two spaces have now been consolidated into a walled-off suite. The patient room will include a bed, a credenza, a couch that converts to a pullout bed, and other furnishings. The living room area will include several comfy recliners that will allow family members and loved ones to sleep over. A TV will carry the “Care Channel,” which airs a series of soothing nature scenes and sounds. A meal program will ensure that visitors’ appetites are sated. Visits from a beloved pet will be allowed. The Estuary is expected to be a regular stop for the Wellspring Singers, a Hospice Volunteer Services group that sings to terminally ill patients.
“We only have one chance to get this right,” Porter Hospital Chaplain and ARCH board member Laurie Borden said of making a patient comfortable during his or her final days.
It’s really an art, one that Porter Medical Center officials are getting very good at thanks to a long and successful partnership with ARCH. The Helen Porter Healthcare & Rehabilitation Center, part of the Porter Medical Center family, already hosts three “end-of-life” ARCH rooms for patients. A dedicated staff of Registered Nurses — including Lisa Hartman and Molly Merkert — have joined a Porter palliative care team that has been diligently attending seminars and conferences on how to provide the best palliative care.
While the ARCH rooms at Helen Porter are used by patients who are believed to have up to six months to live, The Estuary will most often be occupied by individuals who arrive at Porter Hospital for medical care, but whose maladies are diagnosed as being at a point where the patient has but days to live.
Peter Jensen is a past president of ARCH and a current board member.
“The end-of-life-care movement is a young movement with coherence, passion and focus that aims to fulfill what many of us wish for in our last days — if we cannot be in our homes, to be in a home-like setting, free of pain, surrounded by the people we love,” Jensen said. “With the opening of the ARCH Estuary in Porter Hospital, patients there will experience a seamless transition from palliative to hospice care delivered within this home-like, ‘nontraditional’ hospital environment.
“At a symbolic level, the ARCH Estuary room is a final residence,” he added. “At a functional level, it is a care facility. It is also a place of celebration of lives lived, a place of sharing knowledge and stories.”
When not occupied by patients and their families, The Estuary will also provide a private area in which patients, families and physicians can conduct private conversations, Hallman noted.
“This is more than just a pretty space,” Hallman said of The Estuary, which will be adorned with artwork to make it homey. “What this is really about is some additional resources and philosophies and ways of practicing (health care).”
Borden said the new suite will provide opportunities for what is known in the palliative care world as “legacy work.”
“It’s really paying attention to not only the patient’s goals and desires, but also the family’s,” Borden said.
For example, Borden spoke of a case at a different hospital involving a young boy who had been unable to communicate with his terminally ill mom, who had lapsed into a coma. The palliative care team at that hospital got some finger paints, which allowed the son to create a picture using his and his mom’s handprints in the form of a flower.
“That’s the kind of thing (the child) can take home as a legacy,” Borden said. “We hope this raises awareness of what palliative care is and to get people to start talking about it, and planning, too.”
Indeed, many people in this day and age don’t want to map out how they would like to live out their final days, Hartman noted.
“End of life is not a medical event,” she said, adding that once a terminal condition has been diagnosed, attention can turn to quality of life and ensuring that the patient spends his or her remaining time pain-free, surrounded by loved ones.
Porter officials are pleased that The Estuary will provide more space to families — especially larger ones who must currently crowd into the smaller patient rooms.
“You may have 10 people in that room, and it’s just too small a space for the entire family,” Merkert said. “Something like this, it’s just a cocoon. The family can be together and go in and out as they please. It’s going to be such a better feeling for family and patient.”
The Estuary even has a balcony that visitors will be able to use. It will look out on a memorial garden that Carson Bertrand wants to help tend. Carson hopes The Estuary can cultivate a few miracles of its own.
“I hope (the patients) get a blessing and get to live,” he said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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