Wife’s death one too many for hospice nurse

LOS ANGELES

Jay Westbrook’s cowboy boot is planted firmly on the gas pedal of his shiny black pickup. Everywhere he turns, a memory flashes.

In Van Nuys, it is the lifeless little girl he held at Valley Presbyterian Hospital after she was found in the bottom of a hot tub. Near Beverly Hills, outside a Wilshire Boulevard high-rise, it is the old woman in a seven-figure condo whose misery he tried to soothe. On Skid Row, it is the 29-year-old crack addict he brought morphine to numb the pain of cancer, as she died in a box on the street.

There have been thousands of them, thousands of souls he journeyed with to the intersection of living and dying, who helped establish him as one of the foremost experts on care in a patient’s final days. Thousands of moments, tender and haunting and sweet, that rush back to him. Thousands of deaths that collectively formed his life.

It might have gone on this way forever, the never-ending string of deathbed confessions and last breaths and tear-soaked eulogies. Then came one death too many.

■ ■ ■

The first time was a cluster of machines and tubes, and breaths shallow and panting. Westbrook was a student nurse, the patient a big man, maybe 6 feet 4 inches, so swollen from cirrhosis it looked as if he was pregnant with triplets. His mustache was trimmed, his flattop prematurely white. Westbrook had cared for the man for several weeks, and when the time finally came, a profound sadness drove him to tears.

He felt powerless and mortal; and for the first time, this product of atheist parents felt something more.

“I had that experience of the place where life and death meet being filled with God,” he said.

In the two decades that followed, Westbrook experienced more deaths than he could count — as a cancer nurse, in pain management and, most of all, in hospice. He’d put 50,000 miles on his truck some years, driving from one dying person’s house to another. Some nights, he’d balance three deaths.

Many cases were both singular and similar. Those who survived a brush with death — by electrocution or shooting or drowning, perhaps — reported traveling down a tunnel toward a bright light. Those whose age or disease brought a more gradual exit often experienced visions of a loved one who went before, as well as a day of seemingly stunning turnaround, where lucidity returned and pain subsided and all, for a short time, seemed well. It could be a cruel tease to those praying for a miracle, as it was generally followed by clues the end was near: mottled skin, cold extremities, rolled-back eyes and breathing that sounds like a locomotive leaving the station.

Through it all, he was sustained by love.

■ ■ ■

They met on June 7, 1968, at a party bidding Westbrook farewell before he was to leave California to teach reading in Appalachia. Two young women arrived dragging an unenthusiastic third to whom he was soon introduced.

“Nancy, this is Jay,” the host said. “Jay, this is Nancy.”

She wanted to take a walk on the beach, and Westbrook accompanied her. They took the footbridge over the Pacific Coast Highway, walking and talking for hours and coming to rest on the sand.

“Six hours later, the sun came up and we were in love,” Westbrook said.

He never went to Appalachia. He was smitten with her sensitivity, her humility, her long, golden hair. Before long, Nancy Morgan was Nancy Westbrook. They lived modestly but joyfully.

■ ■ ■

Jay is 67 now, white flecked in his wispy bush of hair, a gold Alcoholics Anonymous pendant around his neck. The scars of a deeply troubled childhood — he was largely abandoned by his birth parents, raped by other family members, seriously contemplated suicide — are so deep he still sleeps with a night light to ward off a lasting fear of the dark. They helped stir in Westbrook a strain of empathy so strong he became irreplaceable at the worst moment in others’ lives.

“My suffering,” he said, “became my vehicle for awakening compassion in me.”

A nursing degree brought him where he wanted to be. He became a luminary of the end-of-life world, not just because of his skill, but because he told the stories of his work with such eloquence it enthralled audiences, from medical students in a Harvard lecture hall to hospice workers filling a conference room. He went to ground zero in New York and to a prison death chamber in Louisiana, and day after day, he went back to the bedside of the dying.

It was deeply fulfilling, but draining work. Nancy not only helped her husband deal with the depths of his past, but also the daily trials of death. Sometimes, when he arrived home from a tough day, he’d put his head on her chest and listen to her heart beat. They’d play with the dogs, talk about their days, discuss lessons learned from the dying.

Time and again, he saw a deathbed full of regrets. It taught him and Nancy to never part without an embrace and an expression of love. Tomorrow, he knew, was not guaranteed.

■ ■ ■

It was Monday — Dec. 12, 2011 — when Nancy first awoke in pain. On Tuesday, it worsened. On Wednesday, she saw the doctor. On Thursday, she had a CT scan. On Monday, she had surgery. And on Tuesday, the diagnosis came: pancreatic cancer.

The doctors said she probably had four months to live with no intervention, up to a year with aggressive chemotherapy. Westbrook had had hundreds of pancreatic cancer patients before and expected she had seven months. Four days shy of that, she awoke feeling great, free from pain and full of energy — the cruel pre-death rally he’d seen so many times before. In the yard, she asked him to lift her up, and she put her head on his chest.

“I love you,” she said, emphatically.

Before long, her skin became mottled, her extremities cold, her breathing strained. He knew the end was near and, though they didn’t speak of it, he suspects she did, too. She wanted to stay outside in her beloved garden. And late into the night, they sat. She kept resisting going in to bed, but when they finally did, Nancy mustered her last words.

“I love you,” she said again. “Goodnight.”

By morning, she had lost consciousness. He took her in his arms and held her close.

“Sweetheart, I love you so much, I will miss you so much when you’re gone, but I’ll be OK,” he said. “And if and when you’re ready, you have my permission to go.”

Ninety seconds later, it was over.

And now, Westbrook knew, his career was too.

■ ■ ■

It has been nearly two years since he buried Nancy beneath a pear tree that rains pink flowers. He hasn’t attended to another patient since. He carries the same picture of her in his wallet and keeps the same greeting on their voice mail.

He speaks of her in the present tense. He speaks of his career in the past.

“I’ve lost my life and I’ve lost my work,” he said.

So many of his patients died with such certainty on where they were going next, but all these years of death brought him no closer to knowing whether he’ll ever see Nancy again. He dreams of a blissful reunion with her and their pets. Even if it never happens and he carries this pain forever, he’s grateful for what he once had.

“Small price to pay,” he said, “for a lifetime love affair.”

He has begun to counsel couples and advises on grief and pain relief. But he will not go to a dying patient’s bedside.

Instead, he mostly thinks of Nancy, the last ghost in a life filled with them.

ad-high_impact_4
News
Joseph Otting, U.S. comptroller of the currency during an interview with RJ
Joseph Otting, U.S. comptroller of the currency during an interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Otting oversees all national banks, credit unions, mutual savings banks, coops and the federal branches and agencies of foreign banks in the United States. Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal @bizutesfaye
Paris Wade discusses about his “Liberty Writers” website
Paris Wade, who made national headlines for operating a fake news website and boasts about getting President Donald Trump elected in 2016, speaks during an interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal on Friday, April 20, 2018, in Las Vegas. Wade is running for Nevada Assembly. Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal @bizutesfaye
Police Unity Tour from New Jersey to Washington D.C. to commemorate fallen officers.
Las Vegas Metro police and Henderson police officers ride their bikes during the Vegas Team's last practice rides in preparation for the Police Unity Tour from New Jersey to Washington D.C. to commemorate fallen officers. Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review Journal @bizutesfaye
UNLV students walk out of class on national walkout day
UNLV students and supporters chanted, marched and rallied on national walkout day Friday, April 20 on the 19th anniversary of the 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Colorado. K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal
Captain Sasha Larkin Discusses Challenges, Progress in North West
Captain Sasha Larkin, of Metro's Northwest Area Command, discusses what issues face the northwest valley's residents and what police are doing to address them.
Southwest giving passengers on deadly flight $5,000 for compensation
Passengers on Flight 1380 have been receiving checks as a gesture of goodwill from the airline.
Ellis Island Buys Mt. Charleston Lodge
Ellis Island, which operates a casino, brewery and hotel just off the Strip, purchased the Mt. Charleston Lodge in early April.
LVMPD Arrests Suspect in Sunset Park Shooting
Captain Robert Plummer held a press conference at LVMPD headquarters Thursday to provide updates on the arrest of Anthony J. Wrobel, accused of killing a Venetian executive and wounding one other in a shooting on Sunday.
Two Black Men Arrested at Starbucks Share Their Story
Two Black Men Arrested at Starbucks Share Their Story Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson sat down with ABC’s ‘Good Morning America’ on Thursday and said the Starbucks manager called the police two minutes after they arrived. Donte Robinson, to 'Good Morning America' Donte Robinson, to 'Good Morning America' The men were meeting with a friend for a business meeting at the store’s location at around 3:45 pm on April 12 and declined to make any purchases. Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson issued a public apology and vowed to fix the issue by closing 8,000 stores nationwide next month for training on unconscious bias. Both Nelson and Robinson were released without charges after spending hours in jail, and the manager is no longer with the company.
Hero Southwest Pilot Was One of the Navy’s First Female Fighter Pilots
Hero Southwest Pilot Was One of the Navy’s First Female Fighter Pilots Tammie Jo Shults is being called a hero after safely landing the crippled Southwest Flight 1380 in Philadelphia. According to a spokesperson, Shults began her Navy career in 1985 and was one of the first female pilots to “transition to tactical aircraft.” She served for another eight years before moving to the Naval Reserve, retiring completely in 2001 with the rank of Lt. Commander. The Southwest flight, which was headed for Dallas from New York, was forced to make an emergency landing after one of its engines blew. One passenger was killed in the explosion when shrapnel flew through a window. Seven others suffered minor injuries aboard the flight, which carried 149 people. Passenger Peggy Phillips, to NBC News Passenger Peggy Phillips, to NBC News
Bump stock manufacturers under fire
The Justice Department said last month that it had started the process to amend federal firearms regulations to clarify that federal law defines bump stocks as machine guns.
Artist, Community Paint Winchester Skate Park
Andrew Schoultz, a Los Angeles-based artist with an upcoming exhibit at UNLV's Barrick Museum, painted the skate park at Winchester Cultural Center on Tuesday.
Prince death investigation coming to an end
Prosecutors in Minnesota plan an announcement Thursday on the two-year investigation into Prince's death from a drug overdose Prince was 57 when he was found alone and unresponsive in an elevator at his Paisley Park estate on April 21, 2016. An autopsy found he died of an accidental overdose of fentanyl. Search warrants unsealed about a year after Prince died showed that authorities searched his home, cellphone records of associates and his email accounts to try to determine how he got the drug. The county attorney has scheduled a morning announcement at which time charges could be filed.
David Copperfield executive producer testifies during the magician's civil trial
A British tourist is suing illusionist David Copperfield saying he was injured during a trick. Chris Kenner, executive producer for illusionist David Copperfield, was on the witness stand all day Tuesday, April 17. Kenner testified that a business manager for the show talked to the man after he fell. Kenner testified that the tourist, Gavin Cox, said he was OK moments after the fall. Cox later told the crew: “Maybe I will have this looked at.” Copperfield is the next witness in line for Cox’s attorneys. K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal
Art Bell’s Top 10 Shows
A selection of radio host Art Bell’s most popular shows.
CCSD Teacher Is a Living Organ Donor
June Monroe speaks about her kidney donation to her brother and advocacy work with the National Kidney Foundation.
Shadow Ridge High School teachers protest
Shadow Ridge High School teachers protest. Teachers are upset over many things, including the fact that the district is fighting an arbitration ruling for pay raises. Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal @bizutesfaye
Clark County commissioners debate getting rid of Henderson, North Las Vegas constables
Clark County commissioners are debating whether to get rid of the Henderson and North Las Vegas constables after RJ's story pointing out questionable spending by the Henderson Constable Earl Mitchell. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
1 Dead, 7 Injured After Southwest Airlines Flight Makes Emergency Landing
1 Dead, 7 Injured After Southwest Airlines Flight Makes Emergency Landing Dallas-bound Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 out of New York, which had 143 passengers and a crew of five onboard, landed in Philadelphia on Tuesday. According to NBC10, a female passenger was partially sucked out of a broken window, which was a result of the plane's engine ripping apart. It's not known if the female passenger was the one who died. Emergency personnel met the battered plane upon its landing. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the blown engine resulted in a smashed window and a damaged fuselage. Southwest Airlines The FAA said that the NTSB will lead the investigation into what happened.
Single vehicle crash kills man
A man died Tuesday morning in a single-vehicle crash in northeast Las Vegas. The crash occurred Tuesday morning on the 1900 block of Pasadena Boulevard, near Lake Mead Boulevard and Mt. Hood Street. Police had few details, but Metro's fatal detail was on the scene investigating.
Sunset Park Homicide (update 2)
LVMPD gives update about suspect in homicide at Sunset Park (Blake Apgar)
Sunset Park Homicide (update)
Update from LVMPD on Sunset Park homicide. Releasing suspect's name (Blake Apgar)
Sunset Park Homicide
Police give details about Sunset Park homicide on Sunday, April 15, 2018. (Blake Apgar)
Parents of autistic child talk about their experience waiting for care
Parents of autistic child talk about their experience waiting for care. Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal @bizutesfaye
Donald Trump Calls Out James Comey After Book Details Emerge
Donald Trump Calls Out James Comey After Book Details Emerge The President took to Twitter to criticize the former FBI director as information emerges from Comey’s new book, ‘A Higher Loyalty’. According to 'The New York Times', Comey describes Trump in the book as “unethical, and untethered to truth and institutional values.” James Comey, A Higher Loyalty, via The New York Times A Higher Loyalty hits stores on April 17.
Big Bounce America visits North Las Vegas
Billing itself as "the biggest bounce house in the world," Big Bounce America visits Craig Ranch Regional Park in Las Vegas.
Endangered Devils Hole Pupfish numbers enough for concern, but not panic
Researchers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Death Valley National Park came together at Devils Hole, about 90 miles west of Las Vegas, for a biannual count of the Devils Hole Pupfish, an endangered species. Their count this time – 87. (Video by Patrick Connolly)
Hickey Elementary Students Put Harry Potter on Trial
Liliam Lujan Hickey Elementary School students learned how the judicial system works by putting Harry Potter on trial for the illegal use of magic.
David Copperfield in court after man injured during magic trick
The attorney for a British man who is suing illusionist David Copperfield said his client suffered serious injuries after being called on stage during Copperfield's show at MGM Grand.
The Clark County Museum Turns 50 This Month
The Clark County Museum has an extensive collection, dating back to prehistoric times in Southern Nevada up through the present day. It was first established in April 1968 and has had several locations before it's current home on South Boulder Highway.
TOP NEWS
News Headlines
Events
Home Front Page Footer Listing
Circular
You May Like

You May Like