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After 30 successful years as an ear, nose and throat surgeon, Dr. Joe Weems could have decided he was done. But in the late 1990s, he and his wife, Dorothy, watched three loved ones die of malignant diseases. “And to be honest, their deaths were not good,” Dr. Weems said.
So, at age 60, Dr. Weems became board certified in hospice and palliative care. And Dorothy, a social worker who had worked for the Department of Human Services, a psychiatric hospital and a home health agency, became a hospice volunteer.
Their efforts have blessed hospice patients and staffs across the Memphis area—including at Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare. In homes and at the Methodist Hospice Residence, their passion for the cause is always in view.
Dorothy has done everything from finding books on Greek mythology for a patient, to reading the Bible to patients, to rocking a five-week-old infant—and she has also done lots of listening.
“We both feel very strongly that when people say, ‘Oh that’s so depressing,’ that it’s less so for us than for the nurses—the ones giving all this personal care, having all this trust put in them,” Dorothy said. “They are integral. It’s the beauty of a team to me.”
The focus in hospice care is vastly different than other specialties, Dr. Weems said.
“Physicians have been taught to fix people,” he said, “but they have not been taught how to care for dying patients. I think that’s a great deal of what has interested me in the last 7 to 10 years—teaching medical students and fellows, so that there is better understanding among physicians about how to take care of folks.” In the days before the Residence was completed in 2011, Dr. Weems wasn’t convinced it was necessary.
“At first, when I was seeing folks at home—and it’s true that some people would rather be at home—I wasn’t sure that the Residence was all that important,” he said. “But once this was built, I started to realize—it’s astonishingly helpful to people.”
They both remember the day, shortly after the Residence opened, that his opinion started to change. While making his rounds, Dr. Weems saw a woman sit down in the lobby and start to sob.
“I went over to say ‘Are you ok?’ and she said ‘Yes, I’m fine,’” Dr. Weems recalled. “Then she said, ‘I was so worried about my mother, and then I found this place and it’s perfect. I feel comfortable now that she’ll have a good place to be at the end of her life.’”
Now, they can’t imagine not having a place like the Methodist Hospice Residence.
“I think that the families that have been taking care of someone at home are financially, emotionally and physically exhausted,” Dorothy said. “In certain situations, this is just invaluable.”
Dorothy continues to volunteer, but at 77, Dr. Weems recently retired. He’s proud, he says, of both phases of his long career.
“This part of my career has been the most satisfying to me,” he said. “I enjoyed the first part of my practice, but you get tired of anything after 30 years. It was fun to get involved in an area of medicine that was developing and get on the up learning curve again—and to help change the care of patients at the end of life.”