Hospice Patient Gets Last Wish to Return to Nature, Thanks to Local Firefighters and Caregivers

Edward Reis lived for the outdoors, and being bed-bound was tough.

June 16, 2014, 9:52 PM

— -- Edward Reis loved it when his hospice nurse, Leigh Gardner, would bring him a warm chocolate chip cookies from Starbucks every Friday, Gardner said.

Reis, 62, had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2008. For two hours a day, three days per week, Gardner, a registered nurse case manager with Evergreen Health Hospice in Washington state, would visit Reis in the Edmonds, Washington, adult nursing home where he lived.

The former forest surveyor lived for the outdoors, and being bed-bound was hard on him. So when hospice chaplain Curt Huber told her of his idea to get Reis back to the great outdoors, Gardner told ABC News in a Sunday interview that she had only one answer: “I was like ‘Oh, anything I can do. I want to make this happen.’”

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Huber contacted the chaplain at the Snohomish Fire District 1 and they got other people involved in the discussion. Two weeks later, a fire department medical unit was at the adult home to pick up Reis and, along with a fire truck, take him to the Meadowdale Beach Park in Edmonds.

Once there, seven members of the fire department -- accompanied by Gardner and Huber -- took Reis on a nearly three hour tour of the park. Wheeling him on his gurney, they took him on trail after trail, stopping so he could listen to a running brook or gaze at a verdant vista.

“The wheels of a gurney are like a shopping cart, so very small wheels on a trail -- and it wasn’t like one of those little running trails at all, it was like a hiking trail ... and we would stop every so often and he would just sit and listen,” Gardner said of the March 26 excursion. “And you know I went over to him and I said, ‘Are you happy?’ He’s like, ‘I’m so happy.’”

Gardner said the firefighters would periodically go off and get a piece of cedar and bring it to Reis's gurney, holding it near his face so he could inhale the fragrance of the forest.

“He was just smiling the whole time. He was saying he was so happy,” Gardner said. “He was incredibly grateful to us.”

Reis died not long afterward -- on April 13, but the act of kindness that the nursing home and the fire department performed for him is just now resonating online.

A June 9 post on the Evergreen Hospice Volunteers Facebook page that details the incident had been liked more than 36,000 times and shared more than 9,000 times as of Monday night, with many posters sending thanks and good wishes to everyone involved in helping Reis on his final trip outdoors.

Colleen Cutcheon of Queensland, Australia, wrote: “How beautiful for Ed and how wonderful are all those dear people who transported him and made his final wish come true. Great to read a story such as this.”

Kirstie Mulvihill added: “This is how we should care for the dying always with dignity and respect this story made me cry.”

Huber said he believed the trip outdoors was a “spiritual need” for Reis.

On his second visit with Reis, Huber said, they had a conversation about where the patient had most felt the presence of God. Reis immediately began to talk about the forest, Huber said.

“I could just see his spirit kind of light up as soon as we started talking being outside, and in the forest, in particular, and I had just the thought right at that moment that, ‘Gosh, it would be good if we could get him outside,’” Huber recalled.

Gardner said being out in the woods was therapeutic not only for her patient, but for the firefighters, as well. They had just recently been working in Oso, Washington, to help recover bodies from a March 22 mudslide that engulfed a community, killing more than 40 people.

Shane Cooper, a firefighter and community resource paramedic with the fire district, was among the members who assisted Reis on the trip back to the outdoors. He had also been at Oso, which he described as “draining on everybody."

“We saw a lot of bad things up there in Oso, and this was a time to just watch somebody at the end of their life enjoy what they could,” he said of Reis’ trip. “It felt good inside to help him and to watch his face. The payment was in his expression when he was out there.”

Reis couldn’t speak much, but was able to form words to describe the moss on trees and birds in the woods, Cooper said.

“That made it all worthwhile. It was a good trek,” he said. “That’s a highlight of my career. I’ve been here for 25 years and that’ll stay one of the highlights.”

The firefighters were given special permission to take Reis to the park, Cooper said. The service was provided at no cost.Another fire station covered their duty area for the duration of the visit.

It wasn’t clear whether Reis had ever married or had children. Through EvergreenHealth Hospice, a brother who lived out-of-state declined to be interviewed by ABC News.

“We kind of were his family in the end,” Gardner said, adding that she missed him. “For the first couple of weeks after he’d passed away I was like, ‘It’s so weird not going three times a week and working so hard to take care of him.’ It felt a little odd. So I miss his presence and just, you know, he was a gentle, gentle soul.”

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