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Nun cares for terminally ill

Ro says hospice is not about death, but love

Though unavoidable, one thing hard to accept in one’s life is death.

For those who have less than a year to live due to terminal illness it is even harder to live the rest of their lives in peace, instead living with misery and fear.

Ro You-ja, 69, a nun and the director of St. Paul’s Home Hospice Center, helps people who have incurable diseases, mostly cancer, live the last days of their lives with hope and happiness.

Ro has devoted her life to the people on the brink of death for 32 years, and started to head the hospice center since its foundation in 2007.

The center’s small but cozy office is placed in the convent of the Sisters of St. Paul of Chartres with the backdrop of Bulam Mountain on the northeastern outskirts of Seoul.

Patients and visitors can walk along the paths in the garden where trees and plants are flourishing on the convent’s 13,000 square meters of land.

“This is the place where patients and their families find relief while they take walks with me,” said Ro, pointing to the garden.

When she was young she wanted to become a doctor or a nurse living in a remote village with her mother and taking care of sick people. However, it was against the will of her parents, who wanted her to become a teacher. She chose to study English Literature at Sungkynkwan University.

She dropped out of university in her third year and in 1963 entered Sisters of St. Paul of Chartres, which was established in Seoul 124 years ago by two French nuns and two Chinese nuns.

Postulancy, a training course for nuns, was not hard since becoming a nun was what she had always wanted. Her parents also came round to the idea of their daughter becoming a nun.

In the 1970s and 1980s when Ro worked at Seoul St. Mary’s Hospital in Myeong-dong, which has now been moved to Gangnam, there were many patients with incurable cancer for whom even doctors gave up giving treatment.

She felt responsible as a nurse and a nun to take care of the patients, but did not know how, she said.

A three-month visit to the U.S. in 1980 with children in need of heart surgery showed her about hospice care. She saw patients with terminal illnesses maintain a good quality of life before their deaths with the help of hospice care.

When she returned to Korea she started a movement in 1981 to promote a hospice with nurses, nuns, doctors and an oncologist who brought the well-established concept of hospice from the U.S. to Korea,

Since the establishment of the hospice center, Ro and four other nuns have looked after around 200 people, some 140 of whom have passed away.

“Helping the patients to open their minds is the most difficult task. But interestingly the patients easily talk about their stories with me,” said Ro.

Patients with terminal cancer can usually live for six months up to one year, she said.
Ro You-ja, director of St. Paul’s Home Hospice Center (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)
Ro You-ja, director of St. Paul’s Home Hospice Center (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

“Hospice gives hope and happiness not because of a possibility to live longer, but because they can live well for the remaining days of their lives sometimes through achieving what they have wanted.”

However, when she set p the hospice, it was not well received by society.

“Even though the hospice had been introduced in 1965, it was still not well recognized or studied in Korean society in the 1980s when I started a movement with doctors, nurses and nuns to raise awareness about hospice care,” Ro said.

People nowadays still think hospice care is just giving help to dying people or even helping them die. Hospitals, Ro said, are also not favorable to opening a hospice ward since it is not profitable.

“We should accept that death is part of one’s life. Hospice care is not about death ― it is about love and life,” Ro said.

A week ago a middle-aged man passed away after spending most of his life running a business. Holding his own photo exhibition had been one of his dreams. Ro’s hospice team told him when he was alive that they would help him to hold the exhibition. If they could not make it before his death, they promised him that they would organize a memorial exhibition.

“I saw his eyes glitter with the news. We then worked together on the preparations with picking photos, making booklets and asking a priest for the place at a church. The patient seemed to forget about his illness.”

He died several days after achieving his dream.

Two of his photos, a rising sun, his favorite, and a setting sun, were displayed on walls of the hospice center.

“I see all kinds of love. And reconciliation between family members are made at the end of one’s life through hospice care,” Ro said.

She said she has countless touching stories: a teenager who had gone astray went back to school after he heard it was the last wish of his divorced mother before she died; a woman and her daughter-in-law who had been at odds reconciled before the daughter-in-law died of cancer; a terminally ill mother who had wanted to attend her daughter’s wedding watched the video of the wedding instead and died a few days later.

Ro regrets that the palliative law for terminal patients belatedly enacted this year is exclusive to cancer patients.

“I hope the law will include support for patients with other diseases including AIDS and motor neuron diseases,” she said.

Public attention and donations are necessary to the hospice’s operations, she said.

“What we really need is small donations by children who learn from their parents about necessity of helping dying people.”

No government financial support is given since only hospice centers in big hospitals are authorized and supported by the government.

“More independent hospice facilities and home hospice centers should be established and supported since they are the places where people can receive hospice care comfortably.”

Patients at independent hospice facilities can return home after receiving daytime care.

Hospice services can be educational since they can teach children about the importance of life, she said, mentioning the recent suicides of three middle school students in Busan.

“I hope that people take a step back and think about those who desperately wanted to live today,” Ro said.

The hospice center holds an event for bereaved families once a year.

A paper tree with pieces of paper on which patients’ names and dates of deaths were written was hangs on a wall of the office.

Pictures of patients, a piggy bank full of coins donated by a bereaved family, and other memorabilia from patients were displayed on a desk in the corner of the office. In one picture, a patient puts a smile on her face with Ro and other nuns.

By Kim Young-won (