An inseparable bond

By Justin Boron

The woman is Ruth Riddle, 86. The pictures are of Bill Riddle, her deceased husband who would be 87.

The division between her and the man framed in the doorway is not much – about 5 feet from the foot of Ruth's bed and a rapidly approaching ethereal plain that her heart condition may soon allow her to penetrate.

After several strokes and a heart attack, Ruth says her mind and soul are already with her man. It's only her body that's resisting.

Monday will be their first Valentine's Day spent separate.

But two weeks ago, it seemed like not even death could ply apart the 63-year old bond.

About a year ago, Bill became sick with pulmonary fibrosis, a condition caused by gradual scarring and thickening of lung tissue.

Ruth watched her husband quickly deteriorate, agonizing over his precarious state, said her daughter, Joyce Wells, 60.

From her wheelchair at home, she looked over Bill. The distinction in their health was something they had never experienced before.

In the past, Bill had been the caregiver, Wells said.

Divided by health and sickness, the couple experienced a rare obstacle in their relationship.

But even if it meant a decline in Ruth's health, their lifelines would not diverge that much. She would soon join him in his terminal illness.

The truth of mortality crept into Ruth just as Bill hit the brink of his disease, Wells said.

On Dec. 28, she had a sudden heart attack, her daughters say, was brought on by the stress of caring for Bill.

The dynamic of a wife taking care of her dying husband is a common one in the hospice industry, said Max Andrews, the director of development at Embracing HospiceCare, which recently opened a nine-bed facility in Jonesboro.

It typically eliminates the need for in-patient hospice care, which is one of the reasons why about 80 percent of hospice patients live at home, he said.

But resigned to a hospital bed, Ruth could no longer take care of herself or her husband.

It became apparent that at least one of them would have to enter a hospice facility.

Joyce Wells and her sister Carol Paulicelli, 54, would care for their mother while their father received constant attention from the staff at Sacred Journey.

But much like how heartache grows from seeing a family member so unhealthy, it also builds with distance.

Sick and separated, the couple constantly worried about each other, Wells said.

She said the only sensible resolution was to bring them together again.

Reunited at Sacred Journey, Bill and Ruth had adjoining rooms. The door between them was always open, so they could see each other and wave, Wells said.

During the day caregivers would bring them together by wheelchair, she said.

Because the couple was too sick to talk, they clutched each others' hands clinging to the emotions of six decades worth of love.

The connection brought the entire family happiness.

But having two people in hospice care could cost up $1,000 a day, said Robin Stanton, the administrator at Sacred Journey.

Luckily, Medicare almost always covers all the fees, so that a hospice provider never charges the family, Stanton said.

About 90 percent of the funding for hospice care comes from Medicare, Andrews said.

About 5 percent is generated through Medicaid. The remainder is private insurance and self paid, he said.

Ruth and Bill stayed together for about three weeks.

During that time, Bill said he hoped his wife would go first so he wouldn't have to worry about what would happen to her.

But with a disease about as aggressive as cancer, even a dying man's wish, no matter how heartfelt, can go unfulfilled.

Bill Riddle died Jan. 27, 2005.

Moments before he passed, the daughters say he yelled out his wife's name.

His funeral was held at the First Christian Church in Stockbridge about 7 miles away from Sacred Journey.

Neither Ruth's health, the distance, nor the chill of an ice storm was going to stop her from attending.

Caregivers arranged for an ambulance ride to the service so the feeble woman could faithfully put her husband to rest.

Carol and Joyce Wells say they are ecstatic with the treatment their parents have received from the hospice.

"The maids and nurses all have gotten close to their patients," Wells said. "It's been very, very comforting."

Ruth will be leaving soon though because she has stabilized, Paulicelli said.

Medicare will only cover someone who is actively dying, she said.

But the two sisters say they hope to see their parents back together soon.

Ruth has become depressed and sleeps most of the day, they said.

When she is awake, she stares at his picture and holds onto an ornamental angel her husband gave before he died.

An attached note says, "I love you. When you're missing me just hold this in your hand."