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For hospice nurse, wife's death was one too many

Wednesday - 5/14/2014, 2:40am  ET

Associated Press

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Everywhere Jay Westbrook turns, behind the wheel of his black pickup, 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, 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 deaths that collectively formed his life.

It might have gone on this way forever. 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, swollen from cirrhosis. 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 son 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 heard a little boy confess to his dying mother he once stole from her wallet, and a married Orthodox Jew acknowledge a long affair with a man. He saw athletes and movie stars, deaths surrounded by dozens and deaths all alone.

Each one was both singular and similar. Those who survived a brush with death 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, 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.

"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. Before long, Nancy Morgan was Nancy Westbrook. They lived modestly but joyfully.

They couldn't have come from more different upbringings. She grew up in an Ozzie-and-Harriet family, surrounded by love and support, in Wichita, Kansas.

As Westbrook tells it, his own mother left when he was an infant, and when his father remarried two years later, he was placed in the care of family friends who abused him. His parents eventually reclaimed him, but he says he was still subjected to his stepmother's explosive anger and incest by his grandfather. He ultimately dropped out of high school and ran away. Later, addicted to drugs and alcohol, he spent time in prison, sinking so low he hatched a suicide plan.

He is 67 now, but the scars of childhood remain so deep he still sleeps with a nightlight 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."

He first put his soothing power to work as a veterinary technician, offering solace to owners when a pet was euthanized or a tough prognosis was delivered.

He then became a clinical gerontologist; in that role he constantly glimpsed death, and felt a nagging need to get closer.

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.

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