Death is an inevitable part of life, but how one dies can have a huge impact on quality of life at the last moment, and loved ones left behind.
Zhang Jieren, 63, recently passed away peacefully at Shengjing Hospital, affiliated to China Medical University in northeast China's Liaoning Province. The former police officer had seen many life and death situations, but when faced with his own mortality he was understandably upset.
His daughter felt her dying father's anxiety. She introduced him to hospice professionals, so that her beloved father could maintain his dignity and inner peace as his battle with lung cancer came to an end.
"My father-in-law died of cancer in 2011. He passed away comfortably surrounded by his wife and children in a hospice center," said Zhang's daughter. "If there is no way to cure my father, we want him to go with less pain."
Hospices are palliative care centers concentrating on the comfort of patients during the final stages of terminal illnesses rather than aggressive medical care. By foregoing extensive life-prolonging treatment, patients can focus on having a better quality of life during the time they have left. Staff help prevent and relieve their pain and suffering so patients can pass away comfortably. They also offer emotional and psychological support for family members dealing with the passing of their loved ones.
Hospice programs have become widely accepted in many developed countries, and are now being implemented at hospitals in major Chinese cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenyang and Chengdu. Although the system is in its early stages in China, many have already benefited from it.
A week ago, an elderly patient celebrated her 76th birthday surrounded by her family, doctors, nurses and social workers. Wearing a golden crown, she was frail, yet cheerful.
"I have been waiting for this day for a long time. I am very happy that so many people have sent me birthday wishes," she said.
Staff at the hospice center at Shengjing Hospital are involved in the early treatment of terminally ill patients. They also provide support services for patient's family members for six months after the patient passes away.
Wang Yumei, head of the hospice center, said more than 50 percent of cancer patients suffer from anxiety and depression. Hospice programs, which include doctors, nurses and professional caregivers, can significantly improve their state of mind and provide emotional support.
Wang quoted studies that show about 80 percent of patients want to know the truth about their condition. In comparison, only 40 percent of family members are willing to tell terminally ill patients bad news, she said, adding that it is often the relatives who want to escape the reality of the situation.
"Hospices are sometimes more about caring for the relatives than the patients," Wang said. "In China, there's not much education on death, so we are here to fill that gap."
Thanks to the efforts by Wang and her peers, hospice services have begun to be accepted in more parts in China. However, a report in The Economist showed only about one percent of terminally ill patients in the country received hospice care, and most are in first-tier cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.
Wang stressed the need for promotion of hospice services in more medical institutions, and the creation of a professional system including medical care, nursing, psychological counseling, nutritional advice and volunteer services, to allow patients to die with dignity.
"People with terminal illnesses are walking alone on a dark, dangerous road. We hope to light a candle and replace the dangers with flowers to brighten the path for them," said Wang.