Confronting Death with a Hospice Nurse

RJ Singh

Like strangers on a sidewalk, one might find Richie Rojas at a Long Beach skate park and not think twice about what goes on behind closed doors. But from Monday through Friday, Rojas’ life as a hospice nurse forces him to confront the mortality of himself and others.

Richie Rojas, 29, held the lifeless body of a child for the first time during a graveyard shift at Providence TrinityCare Hospice.

His life flashed before his eyes, seeing himself as a little boy and now, an adult holding a deceased 1-year-old girl, Rojas says. The terminally ill girl had taken a liking to Rojas, sleeping comfortably in his arms as they looked out of her window some mornings. 

As a hospice nurse, Rojas prepares for death at every corner.

“Birth and death are the most intimate moments of our lives,” Rojas said. “To be involved in anyone’s last moments is an honor.”

In the pursuit of balance, Rojas found another side of what can be a dismal yet edifying line of work. This begins by demystifying death. Like Rojas, his chief medical officer Glen Komatsu lives everyday with the awareness of death coming for everyone.

“Death is always with us and that’s one of our problems with society,” Komatsu said. “We’re a society and culture that denies death and thinks that if we live long enough, eat the right foods, exercise, we’re just not going to have to deal with death.”

Komatsu promotes the value of emotions with nurses like Rojas by teaching a meditation course called “Search Inside Yourself,” which uses mindfulness, emotional intelligence and neuroscience to develop emotional insight for constructive use rather than simply reacting to a situation.

Rojas’ girlfriend, Kassandra Magana, 24, can’t say that it’s impossible to break down entirely before the age of 30. As a unit, Magana and Rojas understand that they shouldn’t learn to avoid grief, but instead, they should learn to live with it. “Having a support system, such as my family, was also important and making peace with the inevitable: our own death,” Magana says.

Rojas works to maintain his outlook of life, but he says that it wouldn’t be possible without the help of RNs and LVNs at TrinityCare.

Hospice care allowed Rojas to become a better listener of words and body language of those around him. “Listening to people is a skill,” Rojas said.

There isn’t just a focus on the patients, there’s also a great deal of investment within the families and friends of those patients, Rojas says. This can mean creating a safe space to grieve or simply getting to know these visitors.

“I treat everyone like family,” Rojas said. “I take care of them like my own mom, brother and I don’t have kids but if I had a nephew or niece.”

He pursued the LVN position at TrinityCare as a way to help Magana and her terminally ill mother come to terms with their situation. “If you can’t change your circumstances, you can change your perspective on it,” Rojas said.

But he never anticipated that he’d stay in hospice care. During his start, Rojas would wake up swearing and punching his bed on workdays.

His day typically involves medicating and helping assess the conditions of patients or making “death visits,” which involve preparing the deceased for mortuary services. This isn’t limited to postmortem care, cleaning or outfitting of the deceased in their favorite clothes.

Befriending patients isn’t out of the ordinary for Rojas, but this is when emotional intelligence is put to the test.

Rojas recounted the time a 10-year-old boy that went blind due to his illness progressing during his shift one Friday. The frantic patient’s birthday was over the weekend, and Rojas wished him an early happy birthday.

Then the blind patient reached out for Rojas.

“It was a compliment, the fact that he was in pain and wanted to hug me,” Rojas said. “And I helped him explore his feelings.”

This was the last time that Rojas saw the patient in a conscious state.

Some of the more spiritual experiences come from parents. One mother, Rojas remembers, was wailing so intensely that he saw nothing but her and what seemed like an adult reduced to a little girl.

Even during a simple catheter replacement for patients, Rojas believes that this is his calling at this point in time, citing that people have different callings at different points in time.

As Rojas moves up the ranks in hospice, he hopes to cast a wider net on the patients that he can help, especially children.

In between these points in time, Rojas says people should hold onto something positive during dreary times in order to avoid being consumed by an awesome and grief-stricken wave. For him, it means being with Kassandra, cookouts with his family or something as simple as skating at Long Beach skate parks until the sun goes down.

“Everything comes out after they pass,” Rojas said. “‘I wish I would’ve said this, I wish I would’ve done this,’ and that also gives life meaning. We should just treat everyone that way, so we live with no regrets.”


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