By Contributing Writer, John W. Knuth
The Value of Hospice Care for Patient and Volunteer: A Tribute to Rick Haskin
I started to smoke with Rick on June 20, 2017.
The Blue Water Hospice House sent an email asking for volunteers to take a patient outside daily to smoke. Upon receiving the email, I responded immediately. The close proximity of my home to the Hospice House allowed me to jump on my bike. I remember that it was a beautiful day and while riding, I began praying to the Holy Spirit to guide my words during our visit. This began my daily 10:00 AM trip to Room 11. Neither Rick nor I could have predicted on June 20th what God had planned for us.
Rick Haskin in Room 11 (I did not know his last name for several months) is a 56-year-old man battling brain cancer that is causing short-term memory loss. Our daily routine is simple, wheel him outside on his patio and visit with him while he smokes seven or so Newport Non-Menthol Gold 100 cigarettes. Rick cannot stand and needs to be lifted from his sleeping bed to a Geri Chair, which is more like a wheel bed. The Geri Chair is heavy to push. We always make sure Rick’s arms are inside the arm rests as we slide through some narrow doors. We became comfortable with each other rather quickly and our friendship began to grow. I genuinely liked my new acquaintance.
At first, our conversations were centered on very few topics: Rick’s past jobs, cars, military and smoking. I was careful to not talk about what I was doing as not to make Rick feel bad. We would talk about shooting guns. Rick, a former paratrooper, was an expert shooter in the Army. My limited knowledge was with hunting guns. Rick would share information about types of weapons used in the military and at his job as a bodyguard for General Motors executives.
We also talked about smoking cigars. Before my heart attack, I would have a few at hunting camp, fishing and on vacation. Today, I still enjoy one once in a while. Rick said he liked Macanudo cigars, so a few days later I showed up with two Macanudos. Smoking them together was the beginning of our male bonding.
Except for a few days when I was out of town, we have visited daily. I refer to our time together as “Smoking with Rick.” Rick’s smoking is a blessing because without cigarettes our relationship may not have begun, let alone flourish. I learned very quickly to only bring five cigarettes out with us, which results in little over an hour visit. Smoking was not the cause of his brain cancer and the nicotine provides my friend pleasure and relaxation.
We have a lot of laughs! I love Rick’s deep, low-tone chuckle. I asked him once, “Do you spell your name Haskin or Haskins?” His answer was, “There is only one of me.” My wife, Ketha, is a great cook and loves to try different recipes. One night she decided to make a vegetarian meal resulting in carrot dogs for dinner. The next day I showed Rick a picture of a big carrot in a whole wheat bun, topped with onions. When I told him how terrible it was, he laughed and laughed. He said, “What are you going to have tomorrow, a cucumber hamburger?” The carrot dog was awful but it was one the best meals Ketha ever made because of the laughter it provided. My wife makes many treats for my sweet-toothed buddy. On each zip lock bag containing the dessert, she always writes an encouraging message to our new family friend.
Every day the TV in Room 11 is tuned into Velocity, the car channel. Rick loves cars! He talks about engine building for high performance cars. In Room 11 is a picture of a 1970 mustang that he restored. One day as we were sitting on Rick’s patio, a royal blue 2017 Dodge Challenger drove down the road in front of us before pulling into the Hospice House. So I pushed the Geri Chair out into the parking lot. Rick loved talking to the owner, using words that were foreign to me, a non-car person.
Rick and animals get along well together. The staff nickname for him is “Goose Whisperer” because the Canadian Geese in the Hospice Pond love to come and snuggle up to Rick’s leg. He also loves any dogs that visit and often talks about his past pets. Getting another dog continues to be his hope.
Like two normal guys we like to do things a little on the edge. We joked about me getting on the Geri Chair with him so we could ride it down the Hospice hill behind the building. On my way to visit, I often see deer in the area of the Hospice House, a no-hunting zone within the city limits of Marysville, MI. I really wanted Rick to see them. Much to my amazement, corn kept falling out of my car and landing in a pile across the road behind the Hospice House. One morning we saw two deer and after that the corn stopped falling out of my vehicle.
Various weather conditions make our visits interesting. Out on Rick’s patio in the summer months we dealt with a brilliant south sun beating on us. We wore hats and eventually used two hand-held umbrellas. Once, on a warm gray July morning as he lit his first one, it began to rain. Then, it started to rain very hard, but we sat out in it until five were smoked. It was great fun! The days are getting colder which is not easy on my friend.
A big highlight of our friendship came on Labor Day weekend. Some neighbors and I started a project of putting 14-inch American flags every 12 feet along a three-mile stretch of River Road in Marysville on Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Labor Day weekends. I thought Rick with his military background and his love of our country, would like to see the flags. The Hospice House arranged to get Rick a wheelchair. The nurses secured him in the chair and we ventured out on a beautiful Saturday morning to see the flags.
This was the first time he was in a wheelchair and his first time off the grounds of the Hospice House since his arrival. He was having a good day and was up to the adventure. The plan was to push him three quarters of a mile from the Hospice House with the turnaround point being our home. Of course, the first thing we needed to do was light up his cigarette. He loved being out, seeing the flags and being greeted by our neighbors. Rick is into music and hearing Elton John playing the piano is a favorite of his. When we got to my house, we sat smoking near my back porch listening to Ketha play “Yellow Brick Road” and a few other tunes on the piano. After pushing him back to Room 11, Rick said it was one of his best days.
The conversation topics changed. Rick asks and I share some of what is happening in my life. We talk about politics, the weather and the Lord. God wants my friend and me to share The Good News. I began reading the Gospel to him each day along with a chapter of the book I wrote, Coaching 100 Days with Jesus. Rick told me that he was baptized in the Lutheran Church and that he would like a visit from a Lutheran clergy. I arranged for Deacon Dave Dubois, a former coaching colleague, to visit. Deacon Dave gave Rick a Bible and shared that Jesus Christ is his Savior.
The scripture soon became the central part of our visit, so I felt a need to be prepared to share The Good News. Before each daily visit, I read the Gospel, look for interpretations of the daily readings, listen to the meaning on the Internet and attend daily Mass in Marysville or Port Huron to hear a Priest’s
Homily. Rick loves hearing the Gospel! Many times we would have to go through verse by verse to decipher the meaning. The Parables are his favorite scriptures. Most days, he asks for another reading. The Gospel taught us how God sent His Son to die on the cross for our transgressions. And that, if we truly believe in Him we will have eternal life (John 3:16). Together, we learned of our need to not only hear the Word of God but to put His teachings into practice and our salvation is possible only because of God’s abundant mercy. The Good News and Newports – you have got to love how God works.
Along with my faith increasing, Rick’s Christian journey is heading down the straight and narrow road. He has changed and continues to change. His loving wife, Pam, noticed the difference. The staff at Blue Water Hospice House sees the change. I am sure that God is pleased to see His Child drawing closer to Him.
In spite of my many sins and I do mean many sins, God wanted us together. Looking back, it seems clear that the circumstances of our lives got us together. I always say my near fatal Heart Attack is the best thing that happened to me. Maybe when Rick is in Heaven, he will say the same about his cancer. All my life has led up to this moment. Sharing the Gospel with Rick has become the most important part of my day…….the most important part of my life right now.
Blue Water Hospice House is blessed with great health care workers. They are wonderful to Rick. All the volunteers reach out to him with everything from a smile to a cookie and he loves cookies! The employees are amazing! Administrators, maintenance workers, cooks, nurses, clergy, music therapist, social workers and the gardener all surround not only Rick but each patient with love and compassion. I pray for the staff and volunteers each morning. Thank you God for each of them!
I would encourage everyone to visit a person in a hospital, in a nursing home or volunteer to help others in need. Works of mercy bring us closer to the Lord. God has used Rick’s gifts to change me. He has taught me how to handle adversity and dying. He has taught me to NEVER complain. Not many people alive on this earth are going through the trials and tribulations that my friend Rick faces each day. He never ever complains. He is suffering each day and can do very little physically. Yet, he has shown me how to care about others more than yourself. One day we had to shorten up our visit because Rick was having severe stomach pain. As I was pushing him back in the building someone asked, “How you doing today Rick?” He was so sick, but his answer was, “Doing good.”
Along with the laughter, there have been some tears. Rick’s health continues to deteriorate. I now have to put the cigarette in his mouth and light it for him. When Ketha gives him a piece of pie, he needs help eating it. His memory is getting worse, but we both still enjoy our visits very much. He still is very intuitive. If I stare or remain quiet, he will always ask, “Is there anything wrong?”
In reality, Rick and I have few common interests. I am not into pets, cars, guns or smoking cigarettes. What is the connection? The answer is “Love.” Jesus teaches us to love God, love others and love yourself (Mark 12:30-31). The bond that links all of us is love.
God brought us together. His plan was for us to smoke at 10:00 AM. I can feel God’s presence every day. I continue to pray to the Holy Spirit as I walk in the Hospice door. At the end of our visit, I wheel him back to Room 11 and I feel sad. I always hate to leave him. Before saying goodbye I pray over him, shake his hand, tell him I love him and say, “Have a blessed day.” I am confident as any human can be that Rick is in love with Jesus and I pray he is going to Heaven. We have shared Acts 14:22b, “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” Rick is undergoing many hardships and his love of the Lord will result in entrance in the Kingdom. Rick is one of my best friends. Sometimes I think it would have been nice if we had met earlier in life, but God knows what He is doing in His perfect timing.
On October 13, 2017, Rick and I sat on the patio. Rick smoked and I read him a draft of this article, The Good News and Newports. With a slight tear in his eye, he said it made him very happy and with a slight tear in my eye, I responded, “That is why I wrote it.” I asked him if he wanted to change or add anything. His response was, “Say something about riding your moped by my room and beeping to me.” It is in our article, my friend.
Once I asked Rick, “What is a highlight of your life?” He answered, “I don’t take things lightly and I look to do my best in everything.”
“Well done, my good and faithful servant,” Matthew 25:23.
Coach Knuth spent 40 years in education as a teacher, athletic director, and coach of various sports. An undefeated regular season resulted in him being awarded Associated Press Class “B” Girls State Basketball Coach of the year. His freshman football teams won 95% of their games and he coached on the football staff that won two Class B State Championships. He is an inductee into the Michigan HS Football Coaches Hall of Fame. As a volleyball coach, his teams won eight consecutive state championships and a total of nine. Three of the seasons were undefeated seasons and resulted in a state record 192 consecutive victories. His career volleyball coaching record is 1,135 wins and 78 losses for a 93.5 %-win percentage. He is an inductee into the Michigan HS Volleyball Coaches Hall of Fame. Coach Knuth has been awarded 56 Coach of the Year honors which include being named National Coach of the Year twice. He is an inductee into the HS Coaches Hall of Fame. A heart attack while coaching helped John see more clearly the path God has intended for him which resulted in writing the book coaching 100 Days with Jesus and the children’s book Johnny Lightning- Saves the Town.
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