After 40 years on the job, many people find themselves ready for retirement. In 1994, Phil Demetro was no exception—but for him, retirement didn’t last. A few years later, he found himself back in ministry—as a hospice chaplain—offering comfort and encouragement to the terminally-ill and their families.
Though he works out of a hospice facility, Demetro is a traveling hospice worker, with a weekly average of 300 to 500 miles on the road. The majority of patients he visits are living in their own homes, under the care of family members. Others reside in area nursing homes.
“I guess I’m like a circuit-riding preacher,” he explained. “The ones I visit are spread out over a wide area—the farthest ones are 90 miles from Lubbock, [Texas], where I live.” He visits most of his patients every other week, and some of them weekly, per their request.
The duration of his relationship with patients varies widely. “Some, I only have for a week or two, and some only a day or two,” he said. “One day, we admitted a patient, and 40 minutes later, he died.”
But he is quick to add that most patients survive far longer. “A lot of people have the impression that you only go on hospice when you are on your last legs and ready to die any minute,” he said. Patients qualify for hospice care when a doctor gives them a prognosis of six months or less to live, Demetro noted, explaining that when that six months is up and patients still are living, the doctor can re-certify them for another six months.
“We had one patient on our service for eight years,” he recalled. “She had M.S. and was bed-bound and blind, but was a good Christian who loved the Lord. It was a joy to visit with her! Her 84-year-old mother was taking care of her.”
The hospice facility also has an inpatient unit that provides up to five days per month of respite care for patients, so family members can travel, attend to other business, or simply take a much-needed break. Although there is a hospice chaplain specifically assigned to that unit, Demetro occasionally assists when needed.
Demetro said he only visits those people who request chaplaincy service. “The patients I visit, in most cases, are good Christians who desire a chaplain to come,” he said, adding that, “the ones that need us the most are the ones who don’t want us to come!”
Many times, patients have come to terms with impending death, and are ready to meet the Lord, according to Demetro. “The families are perhaps not as ready for them to go,” he said. “Some people seem to linger for a while, and their families are very resistant to the idea that the patient is not going to recover. Finally, the families recognize [that the patient is near death] and release them, and shortly after that, those patients often come to the end of their earthly journey.”
When a patient spends months in hospice care, Demetro often forms close relationships with the family. “We do have continuing relationships with some folks,” he said. “Our bereavement staff works with family members who need bereavement support, for up to 13 months after the patient’s death. We send them mailings regularly, and we will actually come and visit them if they say that they would like a visit.”
The hospice center where Demetro works holds a memorial service every six months, honoring those patients who have passed away within that time frame. “We have some families who come to more than one memorial service,” he said. “They want to see us and renew acquaintance.”
Demetro said he currently has no plans to retire. “As long as the Lord gives me strength to keep driving my car, I will continue,” he said. “It’s just a really rewarding ministry.”