Sarah Schafer rarely lets people see her get emotional. The 39-year-old hospice worker at Heartland Hospice in Washington comforts her patients when they take their final breaths, offering steadfast, stoic support. But Schafer becomes so close to her patients that she often can’t help but join the families in their mourning.
“Every time a patient passes, I’m coping too,” Schafer recently told The Missourian. “I cry with them, and I have cried with the families sometimes. I have always told myself that I’ve gained another angel watching over me. A lot of times as soon as I get in my car I start crying because it’s a peaceful experience.”
Schafer, a native of Granite City, Ill., has cared for more than 400 patients during her career in hospice, often being the primary hospice caretaker for eight to 15 people at a time. It’s not uncommon for her phone to ring in the middle of the night. The one-on-one time with the patients, whether it’s spent giving them a bath or hearing stories from their youth, is the reason she got into hospice and remains one of her favorite aspects of the job.
Schafer was in her late 20s working as a licensed practical nurse in a neurosurgery unit of a BJC hospital when her husband Andrew’s grandparents, as well as her own grandparents, became sick. They all died between 2008 to 2010, and Schafer for the first time saw the “unique bond” formed between hospice worker and patient and family.
“It was the care they were able to provide, and the one-on-one support,” she said when asked what encouraged her to pivot to a new job. Many of her nursing skills came in handy immediately. She spent longer learning to navigate family dynamics.
“You have to go in with an open mind,” Schafer said. “The emotional support that we can provide the patients and their families is something not everyone else is able to (do). A lot of times we’re mediators. It takes a lot of dedication, and you have to be a good listener to do this job. (It’s also) educating the families about the disease process and about following their loved one’s wishes — with funerals or seeking aggressive treatment — so they don’t have any regrets.”
She said she will never forget some of the relationships she developed.
“There are a couple patients I took care of for a long time and am still in contact with those families today,” she said.
Another Kind of Service
As a child, Schafer’s first dream job was to be a veterinarian. She instead became a paramedic for the city of St. Louis Fire Department out of Engine House No. 12, by Bellefontaine Cemetery, and later graduated from Sanford Brown College as a licensed practical nurse. Throughout that time and even after she started working in hospice care, she also was dreaming of being in the military.
“My brother (Darrell Jarrett) was in the Marine Corps, and we had cousins that were in the military,” Schafer said. “I always wanted to go in. I just never had the strength and courage until I became a parent.”
Schafer is mom to three children, Ann, 9, Christopher, 8, and Elizabeth, 5. She was home with them this spring when she saw an ad on TV about the Army Corps of Engineers.
“The same day, I went and talked to the recruiter,” she said. “I learned a lot, but I was a little scared. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to do it.”
She spent the summer finding out she could. Attending basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Schafer spent 17-hour days completing physical training, skills trainings and learning to build bridges over land and water. The hardest challenge to overcome was rifle training.
“It had been almost 20 years since I shot a gun,” Schafer said. “We spent three weeks (practicing) about 60 hours per week, so about 180 hours.”
Schafer graduated basic training virtually and officially became a reservist. She’s part of the Engineering Division, working one weekend a month and a few weeks each summer with the 739th Engineer Co.
While the training requirements were new to Schafer, the time commitment was familiar. Just before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, she finished her requirements to be a registered nurse through a program in Louisville, Ky. On the days she had class, she would work at Heartland Hospice until noon, drive three and a half hours to her class, come back that evening and go to work the next day. On the weekends she would be back in Kentucky for her clinical rotations.
“I always wanted to finish (RN requirements), but I wasn’t able to before because my kids were young and financial reasons.”
She sees both experiences, but especially her time training for the Army, as a huge help in her hospice work.
“Ninety percent of what we do in the Army involves teamwork. Everything from getting up in the morning until you go to bed involves coordinating and helping everyone,” she said.
Teamwork is one of the examples Schafer hopes her career will set for her children. Although they’re too young to understand yet what hospice is like, she hopes they will know the importance of caring for others.
“I hope they do the right thing,” she said. “And I hope one of them will become a nurse.”