This is a story set in a place where people typically die — but it is a story about hope and kindness, not fear and despair. This is a story about small gestures of grace that have blossomed over the past several years at Trinity Care Center, an AseraCare hospice in Farmington.
Life and death are themes forever present at hospices, places where people are cared for and comforted through the final chapter of their lives as painlessly as possible.
But in these uncertain times, this is a story of light for all of us.
Tim Magee is an 83-year-old Twin Cities native and retired psychiatrist. He graduated from the University of Minnesota Medical School in 1961 before going to Connecticut for his residency. He didn’t want to get drafted out of his residency and be sent to Vietnam as a general medical officer, so he took a commission with the Navy that allowed him to train as a specialist. He came out of his psychiatry residency as a lieutenant and was sent immediately to Camp Pendleton where he was assigned to the First Marine Division.
Married, with two sons, he was about to get sent to Vietnam when he got a call from a Navy higher-up. The Navy, he learned, was only sending single psychiatrists overseas, so he was reassigned to the base hospital for the next two years.
“That phone call might have saved my life,” Magee said.
In the coming decades, his military background became a memory, far from a defining characteristic of who he was. Magee became a fixture in the Twin Cities psychiatry scene, working for the Minneapolis Clinic of Psychiatry and Neurology, opening his own practice and serving on staffs at regional hospitals and for-profit companies in the Twin Cities, as well as on the Iron Range and in Tennessee.
He loved the work so much that he didn’t want to retire.
But he did in 2014, late into his 70s.
Still, he missed seeing patients. A friend who was volunteering at a hospice told Magee that it was one of the most rewarding life experiences he’d had. Magee thought he couldn’t handle spending so much time with dying people. That, he thought, would be depressing.
“You’ve got it all wrong,” the friend told Magee. “These are people who really value contact with somebody in the last days and hours of their lives. It means everything to them.”
Magee looked for a hospice center near his home in Bloomington and found AseraCare. The match was serendipitous. It turned out that AseraCare provides many services to veterans, and the staff loved when someone with a military background volunteered in their hospice.
Magee had a new specialty.
Over the past few years, he has built relationships with six veterans in hospice care. He is their hand to hold, a shoulder to lean on, an ear to listen to their stories.
“When I went into hospice work, my psychiatric background came with me,” Magee said. “One of the things I was very curious about was how people who are dying process the reality of the end of their life. What do they think is going to happen when they die? What about life after death? Do people feel life simply ends and that’s it, or do they feel there’s going to be a new kind of existence?”
He learned quickly that that wasn’t what his patients wanted to talk about.
“When people are dying, they don’t often want to talk about what happens after they die,” Magee said. “They are more concerned about talking about what their life is like right now. So what I provide for people is companionship, somebody to talk to, somebody to commiserate with. They often want to hear about me, about my family, about what I did for a living.
“As a psychiatrist, I was never allowed to share that with my patients. In hospice, it’s not just allowed, it’s encouraged.”
On a recent winter morning, Magee walked into the hospice room of a 90-year-old Marine Corps veteran named Arthur “Dave” Roberts.
Until the coronavirus pandemic shut down hospice visits for the time being, Magee had visited with Roberts every Friday for the past year. These visits turned into storytelling sessions, with Roberts spinning out his life story, bit by bit, from his bed or from a wheelchair.
At first, Magee wondered if Roberts’ stories were confabulations. How was dementia playing into these stories? Not that it mattered, but Magee was curious how factual these stories were.
But as Magee kept visiting, Roberts’ stories remained consistent. And they all checked out.
Roberts, he learned, grew up on a farm in Mississippi as one of 10 kids. He joined the Marines when he was still in high school to see the world and then found himself a prisoner of war in Korea after being shot in the abdomen. He told Magee he spent five months in the camp, going from 175 pounds to 130 pounds, having to eat rice and fish heads and even rats until he was freed by American troops.
After returning from Korea, Roberts played football at the University of South Carolina — Magee confirmed it — and became a structural engineer. He settled in Minnesota, traveled the country managing big construction projects — like a coal-fired power plant south of Stillwater — and joined the Shriners. He met his wife, Joyce, and they had four kids. Then at age 42, he was shot in the face in a robbery at a gas station. He’s been blind ever since.
“[Roberts] told me, ‘You know what? There’s no future for a blind engineer,’ ” Magee said. “ ‘Let’s get real here.’ ” So Roberts opened a business that trained public agencies about making special services for people with disabilities. At one point, he was making $100,000 a year.
On a recent winter morning, Roberts was wearing sunglasses and sitting in a wheelchair in his room at the Farmington hospice when Magee came to visit. Magee sat to Roberts’ left since Roberts can’t hear out of his right ear.
When they were first meeting, Magee wasn’t sure if Roberts remembered who he was, so he’d always reintroduce himself: “I’m Tim, from AseraCare hospice.”
Over time, he knew that Roberts recognized the sound of his voice and appreciated his presence.
Magee, the Navy veteran, asked Roberts, the Marine Corps veteran, about his time in Korea.
“I remember being there as a Marine,” Roberts said, “but I don’t remember going. I was shot by the North Koreans, a belly wound, when we were on patrol. Two people were killed. I remember spots but I don’t remember it all.”
“My memory isn’t very good,” he said. “I don’t know exactly what happened. It’s been so long.”
Joyce Roberts, who is in an adjacent assisted care facility, was wheeled in. A staffer gave Roberts a flower. He gave it to his wife, then held her hand. His hands were shaking a touch but still he smiled.
“Joyce, your hands are still cold,” he said.
“I hear that every day!” She smiled. “We just are in love,” she said. “He’s the most wonderful person I’ve ever known.”
After a bit, Joyce left. Magee lingered. The two talked about fishing for walleye. Roberts told him about the biggest fish he’d ever caught, an 18-pound catfish. Then a nurse came in and it was time for Magee to go.
Magee has known Roberts for more than a year now. Even in that year, he’s started to see Roberts’ mind slip away. That makes him sad. On some visits, he can tell that Roberts can’t quite remember who he is. But he’s thrilled to have been able to share these times with him.
“It’s like he’s dying in stages,” Magee said. “And I’m feeling some sadness about that. When I got into hospice, it turned into an opportunity for me to face the reality of death square on. I’ve come to embrace death as a part of life.
“I’ll have sadness when someone I care about is no longer around. That’s a hard thing about hospice,” Magee said.
“But there’s something that tempers that for me: the reality I’ve been able to help somebody in their last days of life.”