Gay Walker: Helping Pediatric Hospice Patients Move On

December 18, 2012

Daniel was 18, captain of his high school football team, and dying of cancer. He was at home now with his mother, father and four brothers and sisters.

Gay Walker, “the angel” to her co-workers, received the call at 11 p.m. that Daniel was actively dying, and she headed for his home to go to work – to do what she was called to do. When she arrived, she found Daniel’s house was filled with his family and friends. Daniel was on a morphine pump. He struggled to breathe; his pulse was very weak.

When Gay walked into Daniel’s room, she found him slightly alert. "I asked him, ‘Daniel do you want me to kick everybody out of this house?’ Daniel nodded "yes" and then allowed Gay to bathe him in his bed. "I was getting him ready for the next journey," she said.

She put on Daniel’s varsity T-shirt, hat and changed the bed linens. She put his favorite music on, and it was not soft or melodic. It was hip-hop. Daniel asked that the lights be turned up, so he could "go out looking good."

Gay added more morphine to relieve Daniel of his escalating pain. Then, everyone was brought back into Daniel’s room. They told him, "Daniel, we’re going to tell some stories about you." Daniel passed away as his friends and family told him stories about their time together. "He was able to hear his own memorial service," Gay said later.

Later, she stood in the street with Daniel’s little sister. "Can you do me a favor?" the little girl asked as Daniel’s body was driven away to the mortuary. "Could you please put Daniel in the closet instead of in a box in the ground, so every day I could give him a kiss?"

Daniel’s last hours provide a glimpse of Gay’s everyday work.

Gay Walker is one of the founders of Providence TrinityKids Care, a program of Trinity Care Hospice and the only dedicated pediatric hospice program in Los Angeles and Orange counties. As community liaison and program developer for TrinityKids Care, Gay is part of a multi-disciplinary team of clinicians and caregivers who are trained to care for the complex needs of dying children. But she is so much more than that.

After 35 years as a registered nurse, her calling for hospice work came from an almost incidental attendance at a seminar on adult hospice care. Two weeks later, her husband was diagnosed with cancer and she sought out the seminar leader, taking a job as a staff hospice nurse to enable her husband to recuperate from surgery and chemotherapy.

"I began to feel this strange tug," she remembers, "and I knew I could be at those bedsides of the elderly as a nurse."

Eight years ago, while working at TrinityCare Hospice, operated then by the Sisters of the Little Company of Mary, the program received a referral of a pediatric hospice patient from Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. The calling was evident, as Walker was filling in for the clinical manager of Trinity’s pediatric team.

With adult hospice programs common, most children with terminal illnesses die in hospitals isolated from their homes, friends and family. The seeds of TrinityKids Care having been sewn, Gay has continued to work with the team as Providence Health & Services assumed operations, to provide in-home care and support for young patients and their families.

Gay’s pioneering role in TrinityKids Care continues, and she still attends to dying children and their families even though her primary responsibility now is to interact and build relationships with a myriad of agencies and government officials in the growing world of pediatric hospice care.

On this typical day, Gay had just returned from a meeting with the head physicians of the cancer institute at Childrens Hospital Orange County, explaining that Trinity offers concurrent palliative and hospice care for children. Then, it’s on to meet a family to prepare them to take their baby home to die.

"He will have all his needs taken care of," Gay said. "His brothers and sisters want to get to know him before he gets his wings. Anyone, particularly children, should live well and die gently."