A Lifetime of Devotion and Care

Oct 14, 2021

Lisa C. Norton, Communications & Development Manager

It shouldn’t be surprising that John Stern came to volunteer at Angela Hospice. After all, his wife, Lucy, a nurse who worked in hospice and palliative care at the VA hospital in Ann Arbor, raved about her work for decades.

“Her passion was taking care of older people,” John explained. “That’s all she talked about was her vets…” he said. “Talk about getting up in the morning and being motivated to go to work. I mean, I always thought she skipped out the door to go to work. She absolutely loved it.”

After retiring from the VA, Lucy came to work in the home care department at Angela Hospice. Then, in 2013, she and John became volunteers. It was shortly thereafter that Lucy saw an ad for the We Honor Veterans program in a magazine.

We Honor Veterans is a partnership between the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO) and the Department of Veteran Affairs, designed to provide care and support for veterans at the end of life. When the Sterns shared the information with Angela’s volunteer department, they loved the idea, but knew they didn’t have the staff to run the program. They asked Lucy and John if they would consider spearheading the program at Angela Hospice.

John recalled, “Lucy looked at me and said, ‘Why not? Of course we can do it. He’s a veteran. And I’ve taken care of veterans for 25 years.’ So we started the program.”

Right from the beginning, the program was a labor of love for John and Lucy, and the committee of volunteers who helped with the project.

John and Lucy, 2016

Having a chance to honor and support veterans meant so much to John and Lucy, and they were able to see the impact that made on the patients and their families as well. But even as the program started taking off, Lucy began slowing down.

“She’d misplace her glasses or her keys, you know, and we all do that. But then I realized that something was wrong,” John said, “Because she was forgetting things that she shouldn’t forget.” John suggested they see a neurologist, and Lucy was given a series of tests.

“She knew that she was having issues, but I don’t think she was quite ready to accept Alzheimer’s,” John continued. “I accepted it because I could see the change in her, and she did finally accept it.”

John and Lucy first met while John was stationed at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas. He agreed to go on a double date with an Air Force buddy, and ended up meeting his future bride.

“I know the old saying ‘love at first sight,’ but I fell madly in love with her the very first time I laid eyes on her…” John recalled. “I mean, she was just beautiful. She had such a great personality, a good outlook on life.”

John was 20 years old, and Lucy was still in high school when they married over Thanksgiving weekend. Lucy went on to finish her senior year and the couple began their lives together, in the little home they called “the doll house.” It was once they moved to Michigan that Lucy became a nurse.

She worked in various departments at the VA hospital in Ann Arbor, finally accepting a position in palliative care and hospice. Lucy also taught hospice and palliative care at Madonna University. She was even instrumental in helping Sister Giovanni complete the paperwork to start Angela Hospice in the 1980s.

Lucy loved being a nurse, and she loved serving veterans. Even after she got sick, for as long as she was able, she would go with John as his assistant as he did pinning ceremonies to honor veterans in Angela Hospice care. But as her Alzheimer’s progressed, she had to cut back.

John took care of Lucy for about four years as she struggled with Alzheimer’s. Then in 2020, the day before their 56th wedding anniversary, Lucy was admitted as a patient in Angela’s home hospice program.

John appreciated the hospice team’s help in caring for Lucy. And later, when she was admitted to the Care Center, John was grateful to be able to spend her last night on this Earth by her side.

Lucy and John’s wedding: November 25, 1964

Earlier that day, hospice staff held a ceremony to honor Lucy. They read the Florence Nightingale prayer and said a few words of reflection.

“It was just very, very rewarding for me, and put some finality to Lucy’s pending death,” John recalled. “It was Friday, and then she passed that night. So yeah, it turned out to be a real special day for both of us.”

John slept on the couch in Lucy’s room that evening. “She was breathing really loud and heavy,” John said, so he knew she was close to the end. “And about 3:30 a.m., I woke up and I didn’t hear the breathing. And I said, ‘Oh, I bet she’s in heaven.’”

John misses Lucy, especially in the evening when the house is quiet. He wears his wedding ring on a chain these days “close to my heart,” he said. But John still stays positive and active, going to meetings at the Post, enjoying dinner with his grandson, or grabbing a beer at the pub with friends.

He held a memorial service for Lucy in August, with about 100 people in attendance. He said it was hard to believe almost seven months had gone by since Lucy passed. But the memorial was an opportunity to celebrate her life.

“It just was a wonderful, wonderful day to remember her,” John said. “So I call that kind of the final chapter in Lucy’s life. And then the final, final chapter is when I see her in heaven.”

“You know, I know she’s up there doing something right now,” he continued. “I’m sure she’s not just sitting there eating bon bons. She was always busy and I can only imagine what heaven would be like…”

Why Your Support Matters

Teri Schmitchen explained why the donor-supported We Honor Veterans program at Angela Hospice is so impactful.

“It’s not uncommon to hear veterans share that the WHV ceremony was the first time they had been thanked for their service. Perhaps the most potent element of the program is connecting veteran to veteran so that at this crucial time in their life, they can talk with someone who understands their unique circumstance, culture, and experience – which have a way of resurfacing at end of life,” Teri said.

“The reach of this program also extends to veterans who live in our community. As part of the program, there is a safety net that is built of community partners who provide a multitude of services from financial assistance, to home modifications, to legal assistance and more. It’s amazing when our community comes together to serve those who served our country.”

WATCH A VIDEO ABOUT JOHN STERN’S WORK WITH WE HONOR VETERANS HERE

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