A Story from Our Hospice Program: Carmen Winters

Carmen Winters strides into the McDonalds on a cold April day, looks around, and notices. Notices the chill in the air, notices the massively overstuffed hiker’s backpack resting unobtrusively in the corner, notices the man to whom it belongs chatting at the front desk with the staffers about how the sleet had frozen his home, a tent, and how he politely asks if he could stick around a while and warm up.  After they give their approval and he sits back down, Carmen walks up, orders a coffee for herself and an anonymous hot meal for the man.  The smile on the man’s face when the server delivered it to him was enough for her.

The skill of observation, this heartfelt level of care has always been a part of Carmen, but was nurtured by Carlos, her husband of 42 years.  It continued to grow when twelve years after surviving cancer, Carlos began to succumb to chronic kidney failure and was admitted to the Kavanagh House on 56th Street. There, Carmen noticed the constant acts of compassion extended by the members of EveryStep Hospice.

“They treated him like family,” Carmen says in a tone still mildly tinged with awed disbelief, “they treated the whole family like that!”

Carlos grew up overcoming difficulty.  He had a hearing disorder from birth, and struggled with detecting and understanding what was being spoken to him.  When he was younger, he jumped from a failing technical school that he “thought he could singlehandedly” rescue from disrepair, to a college he where he could not hear the lectures, before finally landing on a mechanical school where he successfully trained to be a diesel mechanic.  Yet he still was not satisfied.  A few years later he went back to school and became an accountant.  

Even these obstacles couldn’t deter his kind spirit. 

“He’d give the shirt off his back” if he saw someone in need, reminisces his wife.  He became a Baptist Deacon, and the church became a medium through which he could channel his positive energy to help the people in his community.  This commonality of innate, heartfelt care stitched together the tapestry of love and support that would bond Carmen and Carlos together for the rest of their lives. 

And this hallmark of kindness was part of what brought Carmen and Carlos together in the first place. 

Before the couple met, Carmen was struggling to leave an abusive relationship. On the day Carmen went to finalize the divorce, her now-ex learned of the plans. He picked up the couple’s child and brought a sawed-off shotgun to the elementary school where Carmen worked. 

Thanks to the brave actions of a co-worker, Twyla, who took the baby to safety and gave others time to call the police, the situation ended without any injuries. Carmen’s ex was sent to jail and she was free to begin a new life. 

A short time later, Twyla introduced her brother Carlos to Carmen. The couple was married within a month and a half of their first date.

Together, they spent time together, relaxing in each other’s company, playing on each other’s strengths and augmenting the areas where the other had difficulty.  Carmen became Carlos’s ears; Carlos became Carmen’s emotional rock and technical support.   

“It got to the point where I would answer things for him,” she recalls.

They just genuinely enjoyed people and each other. This was evidenced by their frequent trips to Las Vegas, where they never gambled, but watched people on the strip.  They did things on their own as well.  Carmen adored shopping and watching action movies while Carlos would read, play or watch sports, and exercise.  Carlos exercised until the day his health deteriorated to the point where the movement became too difficult.

At that point, EveryStep Hospice took over.  

“I believe it was Twyla [who found hospice]. Twyla took care of everything,” Carmen recalled. 

“I didn’t know the Kavanagh House did so much, and [does] so much.” Carmen notes, remembering that the staff members were “unbelievably caring and inviting…Love, respect, all of those things…you know, and appreciation…I mean they were appreciating us, but we appreciated them.”  

For the entire duration of Carlos’s stay, a time period spanning the length of many days, the hospice staff made it possible for Carmen to remain close to Carlos in a way that would otherwise have been impossible. 

“Everything was there!  ...I didn’t leave his side ever, I mean ever,” she said.  They provided Carmen place to shower, to eat, even to do laundry.

And when he passed, Kavanagh House’s communal journal of memories served as a location to record Carmen’s emotion and love while the special quilt that covered Carlos served to honor him even as he exited the building for the final time.

“Hospice is really the only way to go. It’s an experience that is really heartwarming, it’s safe, and it’s wonderful…I simply can’t say enough good things,” Carmen said.  

This past summer, Carlos was memorialized forever in the home that hosted him in his final moments.  His name joins other loved ones on the brick path weaving through the front garden of the Kavanagh House on 56th Street — serving as a place where friends and family can visit and remember Carlos at any. 

“Carlos was my life,” Carmen said.  “I really miss him I mean…I loved taking care of him, I mean I really did.  And he took care of me too. I mean, we both took care of each other. I feel that he’s an angel looking out for me and the family.”

If you believe that you or a loved one may benefit from hospice services, please contact EveryStep at info@everystep.org or by phone at 515-333-5800.

This story is an edited excerpt of a piece written by Drake University student Ellen Reter.