Austin American Statesman - Films of Dying Patients Lasting Images
By Cheryl Coggins Frink American-Statesman Staff

The man on the television is a little defiant "I'm not sick now. I think people are sick who think I'm sick."

He's gently philosophical - "You have to love people, whether you like them or not." And he's also very, very ill. Peter Camier, the man there on the screen who seems so at peace with himself, is dying. He knows it. His wife, Joanne, chatting cheerfully with him in the video, also knows it.

And two weeks after making the video, Peter Camier is dead. "He took my hand and said, 'It's not going to be long. I'm going to go soon,"' Joanne Camier says when she talks about the evening last September when her 65-year-old husband died.

"I told him, 'It's all right Pete, I'll be with you.

Joanne Camier, a nurse at South Austin Medical Center, has yet to look at the videotape since her husband's death. But she knows it's there when she needs it. "I'm very glad I have it, because no matter how much you love someone, you forget their mannerisms and their voice. I have it on videotape now. It brings it all back. You can almost reach out and touch them," Joanne says.

"I didn't realize the impact at the time, but I wouldn't part with that thing for a million dollars," she says of the videotape.

That's exactly what Cindy Pickard had hoped for when she and Peter Camier teamed up for one last major project for the terminal cancer patient. Pickard works in occupational therapy for Hospice Austin, a program designed to help terminal patients keep comfortable and remain at home if possible during the final stages of their disease.

Pickard goes a step further in her approach to occupational therapy by trying to help her patients take on meaningful projects they can complete before they die. The projects serve as therapy for bodies often crippled by disease, and they tend to boost morale.

But Pickard knows the birdhouses her patients build or the cookbooks they put together before their deaths mean a lot more than a temporary lift in spirits. When Pickard was 9, her mother died from cancer. Although the little girl suspected her mother was dying, her family would not tell Pickard or her brother how sick their mother was. "When she died, it was before death or dying was talked about. She was real protected," Pickard says.

Pickard remembers peering into the hospital room where her mother lay dying. She also remembers that she and her brother were not permitted to enter the room to tell their mother goodbye. "She didn't want us to come in. She was never able to talk about her death, and the only way she had of dealing with it was to block things out," Pickard says.

Several years later, Pickard's brother committed suicide, an act she says was connected, at least indirectly, to her mother's death.

Because of those tragic experiences, Pickard realized the value of things left behind by those who have gone on.

"It's so important to leave something for somebody so they know who you were. I don't really know who my mother was," Pickard says. "What if I would have had a letter ….. or anything?"

That personal loss drives Pickard, who works with occupational therapist Jill Brasch, to help patients find a way to leave something of themselves behind. The projects the patients tackle are designed to lend them power and dignity at a time when disease and discomfort have sapped those elements from their lives.

One woman patient was a good cook before her illness, so Pickard helped her put together her favorite recipes in a cookbook for her family. "For two hours a week, she had control and she's leaving something behind. When she finished that, she went on to do a photo album of her life," Pickard says.

Another patient had made his living building furniture. He decided to build a birdhouse as his life's souvenir for his family. Another woman was so stricken and depressed by her disease that she spent her afternoons in misery lying alone on her couch and praying. Now her afternoons are less anxious as she composes pictures using crayons. And one man is making an audio tape for his loved ones as his project.

Pickard and her patients work together to come up with an appropriate project. "You can't go into someone's life and say, 'I want you to build a birdhouse.' Most people haven't built anything in their lives," she says. "We don't make anyone do anything they don't want to do."

In Peter Camier's case, Pickard came into his life only a month before he died. She probably worked with him only six times before his death Sept. 3, but their relationship became so close that she and her son were with Camier the day he died.

"I knew him for a month. But we had to be very honest. In a month's time we had become so close, I was there with his best friend and his wife when he died. It sort of made up for not being there at my mother's death," Pickard says.

Because of the nature of her work, Pickard has developed strong bonds and loving friendships with her hospice patients, "I've been closer to these patients than to anybody else," Pickard says.

I gave one of my patients a birthday card on her 77th birthday that said, 'We have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night,"' Pickard says. "She cried and put my card up with all her family cards."

Camier's videotape was done in the living room of his home. The project was Camier's idea, and it suited well his outgoing personality. In it, Peter, who worked in hospital dietary services before he retired, and his wife, Joanne, visit with Pickard, while Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman play in the background. It's a happy gathering, with dogs and parrots and easy laughter all part of Camier's final gift to his family.

"I think deep down in his soul, he was a little bit of an actor," Joanne Camier says. "He liked being in the limelight. He loved the music. He loved this idea. It was his way of making a grand finale."

© Copyright 2004, Rites of Passage, All Rights Reserved