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How a St. Paul hospice nurse's life experience prepared him to help the dying

A hospice nurse's extraordinary empathy eases the transition for patients and their families. 

Sixteen years ago, Frezgi Hiskias began working as a hospice nurse. Within days, he realized that his own extraordinary life circumstances perfectly prepared him to attend to the dying.

“I knew that this was for me. I understood from my own suffering how to sympathize with these patients. They trust me,” Hiskias said. “I do not fear death. My experience made me an instrument for others.”

Born to a nomadic family in the east African country of Eritrea, Hiskias was 13 when he was stuck by lightning while herding cattle. He suffered devastating burns. With only basic medical care available, his injuries left him limping, gasping for breath and tortured by unrelenting pain.

When he was 22, his sisters, refugees who settled in Rose­ville, teamed up with a Falcon Heights church to sponsor him and bring him to Minnesota on a medical visa.

“If I wouldn’t have gotten out, I would have been dead long ago,” he said. “The pain would have killed me.”

In his new home, Hiskias learned English and earned a high school degree. While undergoing multiple complicated surgeries, he was inspired by the medical professionals who furthered his healing. He become an LPN and then an RN.

Now 56, Hiskias is nursing supervisor at Our Lady of Peace Hospice in St. Paul, a residential facility with 21 beds. It cares for the terminally ill in their last four to six weeks of life.

While Hiskias doesn’t count the patients he has been with at the time of their death, the number is surely in the hundreds.

“Every one is different. For families, the moment when their loved one is gone is difficult. I have seen a million tears cried and I have cried a million tears,” he said. “When it hurts me, I cry and then go and wash my face and then come back to work.”

The first goal for a new arrival, Hiskias said, is to make them comfortable to ease the transition ahead.

“They often have unmanaged symptoms and pain. When the body is failing, it’s compromised. They don’t eat. They can’t void. They haven’t attended to cleanliness. They are miserable. We address this and within 24 hours minor issues are resolved,” he said. “They and their families know they are in good hands and they can relax.”

“Patients and their families react positively to Frezgi because of his amazing background,” said Joe Stanislav, CEO of Our Lady of Peace. “You can train a nurse to be a good practitioner but you can’t train compassion. Frezgi models that for us and sets the example for our staff.”

Hiskias himself is still dealing with the fallout from the injuries he incurred decades ago; he had surgery this summer to repair a shunt in his brain. He said that his ongoing pain keeps him humble.

“Every day is a reminder to me that we are mortal. We are temporary. One day this life will end for all of us but I say, I am here today,” he said. “What can I do with my life today?"

Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and broadcaster.

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