When it comes to tough jobs, it’s hard to imagine one that’s much more emotionally and physically taxing than caring for burn victims and the dying. But that’s what Marie Herbrandson has done, week in and week out—first while managing the Torrance Memorial Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and the Burn ICU for four years, and now as lead RN of Hospice at Torrance Memorial Medical Center, where she has been since March 2014.
Although she truly loves her work, it was while in the ICU three years ago that Herbrandson realized she needed a change—something she could do that was just for her. So she started running. “I never ran until I started managing the ICU,” she remembers. “One of our cardiologists invited me to join his running group, and it was such a great stress reliever. After that, it was a snowball effect.”
Herbrandson and some of her co-workers next hiked Mount Baldy. Then a few trained for and ran the LA Marathon.
“The shared experiences we had in accomplishing something together outside of work really solidified our relationships, and it broke down a lot of barriers at work,” says Herbrandson, who was also part of the council that launched the hospital’s Vitality wellness program. “When you’re sweating and struggling together, the hierarchy disappears—we’re just friends supporting each other.”
Pulse writer Katie Griffith sat down with Herbrandson to find out more about her work in hospice care and her personal journey to better health.
Pulse: Why did you switch from working in the ICU and Burn ICU to hospice?
Marie Herbrandson: While working in the ICU, I realized how much denial there is in our culture about the inevitability of death. Many patients died in the hospital because their goals of care weren’t firmly established before they became ill. A lot of procedures can be painful and invasive; I wanted to explore less aggressive ways to approach end-of-life.
One of my relatives died while in hospice, and the program sent a violinist to his home so he could still have beauty around him. Hospice enabled this dignified man to die as he lived, and our service in hospice aims to provide inspiring experiences like that.
Pulse: What do you enjoy most about working in hospice care?
MH: I like the collaborative team approach to the care we provide. One of the most rewarding experiences is when members of the South Bay community call us to discuss what treatment options are available for their loved ones. Situations are rarely black-and-white, and most people need some guidance in making decisions about what the right choice is for them.
Families can really struggle with whether or not to choose interventions like IV hydration and feeding tubes. Everyone has good intentions for their loved ones, but as our bodies fail it becomes harder to know what the best option is sometimes.
It’s a very personal decision. Hospice isn’t all about death; it’s a supportive philosophy about enhancing our life while we still have time.
Pulse: How do you cope with the loss of patients?
MH: Some patients have been with our hospice service for quite some time, and deep attachments can be made—not only with the patients but also with their families. All the caregivers in our team support each other through our personal grief.
And we focus on the positive—when we made a difference and were able to keep someone comfortable and pain-free at the end of their life. It’s a privilege to be welcomed into people’s homes and to meet their family. Then we can truly see them as a full person with their life history all around them.
Pulse: What goes into helping people transition from life to death?
MH: Having a conversation about it early on really helps. When you know what you want for your end-of-life care, you can maintain more of a sense of control. A lot of anger can stem from a loss of control. Because so many people don’t talk about their feelings about end-of-life care, family members are often left to figure things out when the patient becomes acutely ill.
A sudden illness often brings together family members that perhaps haven’t spoken to each other in years, and everyone has to come together to make a decision they feel good about—often without really knowing what the patient truly wanted. It has happened in my own family, as well as with most of my friends who have had loved ones who become ill.
Again, it’s not common in American culture to talk about death, which is really unfortunate since we all know it’s inevitable. I think a healthy transition to death starts now, for all of us. If we embrace each day, perhaps we’ll be prepared when our time comes.
Pulse: What, exactly, does running do for you?
MH: As health care workers, we have to be reminded and encouraged to take care of ourselves, in addition to our patients. My mind tends to be hyperactive, and running is one of the few ways I can really relax. If you start a day running on The Strand, looking at the ocean and the sky, how can the rest of the day go wrong?
I use a lot of mantras, such as “So happy, so healthy, so lucky, so grateful” when doing long runs to help keep me going; it makes the experience more meditative. My best experience as a runner was a marathon I ran for a patient in the Burn Center whom I’d grown very close to. She remains the strongest person I’ve ever met; she gave me strength while I gave her my legs for the race.
With my new position in hospice, I haven’t kept up my usual training routine, but I’ve done the Long Beach Marathon every fall for the past four years. My next goal is to do a triathlon. I just joined a swim team and am working on my swimming because that’s more difficult for me than running. I do a lot of hiking on the Palos Verdes trails, and my son is an avid mountain biker—so he bikes the trails while I hike. It’s time together that we both really enjoy.
Pulse: What’s your advice for new runners or those who want to start running?
MH: My advice for someone who’s new to running is that you don’t have to be fast or svelte to be a marathoner. I’ve run nine marathons, a dozen half-marathons and numerous 10Ks. I’ve also run a couple of trail half-marathons; I enjoy the challenge of the terrain and the elevation changes. There’s a tremendous amount of love and support for people who just show up and try. Perseverance makes a marathoner—not the physique.