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JourneyCare helps couple celebrate anniversary during hospice stay

‘They made it so beautiful’

Gena and Claude Pistone fell in love when they were just teenagers. They married young in a May wedding, then bought their first home by age 21.

“We have only known each other – no one else,” Gena says.

After more than four decades together, Claude was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2017. Doctors recommended surgery, followed by chemotherapy. A little over a year later, Gena said her husband was cancer-free and beginning to feel healthy again.

“He was getting back to himself, doing things around the house and gaining weight,” she said.

But early last year – before the COVID-19 pandemic hit – the couple traveled to Arizona and Gena noticed Claude “was far away.”

“He was not himself and told me he was experiencing the same pains he had when he was first diagnosed,” she said.

As the couple pursued a CT scan to determine his pain, pandemic restrictions hit and the procedure kept being delayed. Ultimately, doctors completed a test and determined Claude’s cancer had returned in a different place, and it was inoperable. The doctors recommended chemotherapy once again, coupled with radiation. But by the fifth radiation treatment, doctors had to stop because it was causing Claude too much pain. Virtual visits with a pain specialist were not helping, and Claude could barely sleep. After an especially tough night, Gena called Claude’s oncologist on his personal phone at 10 p.m., desperate to help her husband’s pain and symptoms. The doctor recommended JourneyCare.

A JourneyCare nurse came immediately and determined that Claude’s symptoms were so out of control, he required care at JourneyCare’s inpatient Pepper Family Hospice CareCenter in Barrington so he could have around-the-clock care. Within hours, the JourneyCare team got Claude’s pain under control.

“He slept for the first time,” Gena recalls.

Gena also said the inpatient CareCenter allowed them to be together at the height of COVID-19 restrictions, with her permitted to stay in Claude’s room provided she follow JourneyCare safety guidelines. This togetherness was essential for the couple and continued throughout Claude’s time in hospice, which included eventually returning home for almost three weeks once his symptoms were able to be managed.

“Even at home, the nurses were there for us,” Gena said. “There were times I wasn’t sure of his medications or what to do, and I would always get a call back, even at 2 a.m. And if Claude needed reassurance, they always knew what to say to him.”

Eventually, Claude returned to the CareCenter and, during his stay, Claude confessed a worry to JourneyCare Social Worker Sarah Walker-Bending: his anniversary with Gena was approaching, and he was devastated that he could not take her out for their traditional dinner at their favorite restaurant or celebrate properly.

“He was really experiencing some true existential pain because of this,” Sarah said.

That inspired her and her colleagues at the Barrington CareCenter to create a celebration for the couple right in the hospice room. The staff decorated the room with real dining chairs, a table cloth, rose pedals and candles, and encouraged Gena to bring the couple’s china from home and the silver goblets they used at their wedding. A Bluetooth speaker streamed the couple’s favorite songs, and dinner arrived from their favorite restaurant in Barrington – delivered by their favorite waitress.

“They made it so beautiful,” Gena says. “It was just very, very special. They bought a card for Claude to fill out. I look at it still.”

Sarah, Claude’s social worker, recalls the serious responsibility she felt while shopping for the card at Claude’s request.

“I was picking out the card, I felt great responsibility because I knew this would be the last card that Gena would receive from him and she would look at it for years to come,” Sarah said. “I wanted to ensure it was perfect.”

She added that the anniversary celebration helped bring Claude peace.

“It was like a weight was lifted from him and you could really see a difference after that experience,” she said.

Eventually, the JourneyCare team was able to manage Claude’s pain and symptoms once again, enough so he could return to the comfort of his home once more. Eight days later, he died and Gena felt grateful that she was able to spend every moment possible with her husband – even with strict COVID-19 protocols in place.

“The nurses, the doctors, everyone was so wonderful,” Gena says. “Everything was taken care of. When we were at home, the medicine would come to us. When he needed to go to the CareCenter, the ambulance would take him to and from. And to be able to stay there with him and share that time, it was so special, because that time was it.”