Laura Horn recently found what she calls her “end-of-life career.” She trained to become a registered nurse at the age of 60, specializing in hospice care, after her wife, Margaret, died “suddenly and unexpectedly.”
The experience dramatically changed her view of life – and death. She wanted to volunteer in hospice after several of her family members received palliative care, but her wife’s death convinced her she needed to make a change as she faced the last chapter of her life.
“I’m a brand new nurse but that’s not what’s important,” Horn said. “I’ve had life experience.”
She eventually applied to the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco, which trains volunteers to sit with people who are dying. The organization works with lots of people who recently lost loved ones to a terminal illness or disease, but the organizers wouldn’t let her volunteer right away.
“Wait a year. You can’t do it right away,” they told her.
Horn just wanted to be useful, but looking back, she admits they were right to make her wait until more time had passed.
“You can’t jump into something new until you have grieved appropriately.” She had “good therapy” and did what she calls “walking grief – I mean, I walked everywhere”. A year later, she reapplied. “They said, ‘Why do you want to do this?’ and my first sentence was, ‘I know loss.’”
She had outlived both her parents, parents-in-law, and her brothers, both of whom “died of substance abuse, one of a heroin overdose, and the other of long-term substance abuse.”
“That, I’m sure, was part of my motivation,” she says. “That kind of pain can also lead to openness and joy, and that’s what I’ve discovered.”
Horn found volunteering to be a “truly transformative” experience. It gave her an outlet to utilize her skills at a time when she needed a purpose in life.
She eventually decided to go all the way and become certified as a nurse.
“I thought, I want to do the nursing part too.”
As an undergraduate, she had studied biology, and her early work was in public health before she switched to education research. Most of her career was spent “trying to determine what helped students succeed in college and beyond. But I always had the sense that I would circle back to the world of health,” she says.
At the age of 63, she enrolled in a local community college, which happened to be one of the institutions she had been studying as a researcher, to take the required prerequisites, including anatomy, physiology, microbiology, and pharmacology.
After completing her studies, she applied to nursing school at age 65. She was accepted into an accelerated one-year learning program.
But she soon found the intensity of the training to be staggering.
“I was devoting every waking hour to studying and my clinical work,” she says.
Luckily, she had a network of support that helped her through the training.
The friends who had supported her after Margaret’s death would cook for her three nights a week. Horn would visit for an hour, then leave to study.
“We called it ‘catch and release’,” she says.
Horn reflects on her decision to go back to a place of dying and death after watching so many of her loved ones pass away. But she says the experience has been nothing but cathartic.
As hospice nurses, “we are not part of the family so there is that distance,” she says. “We are here with you at this important time. We are here to normalize the experience and we teach family members what to look for, and not to be scared. It’s emotionally taxing but not overwhelming.”
Horn, now 68, says she has overcome her fear of dying.
“I think I have relaxed around it,” she says. “After seeing all I have about death I’m not so scared of dying. I have a limited amount of time left on this Earth and I will try to make the most of it. And not be too terrified.”
The best part of her job is being able to create “a reciprocal relationship with patients and families,” she said.
She hopes “to find real balance in that, to learn from them as they learn from me. If I’ve learned nothing else, we can’t live a full and meaningful life without deep relationships. And that’s what I’m hoping for.”
It’s never too late for a change.