As a young nurse, she didn’t understand why dying patients were kept at the end of the hallway with their doors closed.

Vickie Lannie asked her nursing supervisor, “Why do we do this to people? When they need us the most, why do we put them furthest away and never go in there?”

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The answer came back, “Because we don’t know what to do, and we don’t know what to say.” That started Lannie on a 35-year mission, establishing the first hospice in Central Illinois that led to comforting more than 9,000 patients and their families—even if it meant driving through heavy snow or away from the tail of a tornado while trying to make it to the home of a dying patient.

When the 1965 Mennonite School of Nursing graduate started her career on a medical/surgical unit at Mennonite Hospital, no one knew what hospice was. Medicine was focused on cures and treatments, not letting death in. Lannie clearly remembers the first time a patient told her she was dying. “I didn’t know how to respond,” she said.

Soon after she saw a brochure about a workshop with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the Swiss psychiatrist who wrote the groundbreaking book On Death and Dying. She identified the five stages of grief and the importance of listening to what dying patients tell us.

A hospital volunteer who provided music therapy attended along with Lannie, who would occasionally join in with her guitar. Kubler-Ross heard about their nontraditional therapy and announced from the podium that she’d like to have lunch with them. Lannie had committed to eating with the woman next to her, who was crying throughout the presentation, grieving the recent loss of her daughter.

But that night, while unlocking her hotel room door, Lannie heard a woman speaking Swiss struggling with her key and knew it was Kubler-Ross. She introduced herself and the two talked until morning. She spent the next five years in independent study with the hospice pioneer, traveling to her Flossmoor home. Years later, when her mentor’s health was failing, Lannie visited and cared for her, lifting her in and out of bed each day.

Inspired to bring hospice to Central Illinois, Lannie started a program at Methodist Medical Center in Peoria. That began her long career of advocating for the dying and their families, while educating physicians and hospital staff. Several disciplines are weaved into hospice care, and Lannie wanted to study all of them. She completed a bachelor’s in sociology and psychology, with a master’s in pastoral theology.

“I wanted to know everything I needed to know,” said Lannie, who is now 72. “Sometimes we were the patient’s only or last church. Their spiritual well-being, however they expressed it, was as important as their physical well-being.”

She also wanted to share knowledge, including three things critical to the dying: They want to be assured their pain will be controlled; to know their family and friends will be allowed to be with them; and that their life had meaning and purpose. One question frequently asked is: How am I going to die?

“It’s reciprocal. They teach you how to live, and we teach them how to die.”—Vickie Lannie

Lannie explains the progression of the specific disease and listens for the next question. If it doesn’t come, she avoids prompting. Beyond symptoms and fears, Lannie also listens to a patient’s memories.

“My experience as a Mennonite student nurse included the teaching and skills to look past all else to see the patient, to listen in reverence to their story,” she said. “I am grateful for that kind of humane, compassionate training from the best school ever.”

Often she’s asked if working with the dying is depressing. Quite the opposite.

“It’s reciprocal. They teach you how to live, and we teach them how to die. You’re with patients every day who are saying goodbye to everything. And you’re still saying hello to new adventures, new opportunities. When you realize that you are finite, that you are mortal, you don’t take things for granted.”

At 49, Lannie had to struggle with her own mortality. She needed triple heart bypass surgery, and her cardiologist warned that her work was killing her. She admits making the common mistake of believing that everything on her to-do list was important.

“For most people all they have to do is open the office door, and they’re caught up in all the illusionary urgencies of life. And then all of a sudden, a call comes and they are forcibly reminded of what is really important.”

She learned that at 9 while growing up in a small town in Ohio. She and her older sister, Connie, jumped on their bikes and raced to the pool on summer days, going in different directions. Her sister always beat her until one day, Lannie got to the pool and didn’t see her. Ecstatic, she threw her bike down and jumped in.

But 45 minutes later, she was called out of the pool and told her sister had been hit by a car. Grabbing her bike, she pedaled to the hospital as fast as she could and sat alone in the waiting room. Crying and dripping wet, she believed her sister was dead.

A sign said no children under 12 were allowed. As she started for the door, the most beautiful nurse she’d ever seen came through it. Lannie remembers the swish of her uniform, her chalk white shoes and perfectly straight cap. The nurse told her they were putting a big cast on her sister’s leg and she could watch, and then she scooped her up.

“The whole time she carried me down that corridor, there was a voice inside of me saying, “This is what I’m going to be when I grow up,” Lannie remembered.

Although she tried to thank the nurse the next day, no one seemed to know who she was. It wasn’t until a decade later, when Lannie was a first-year nursing student at Mennonite and faculty were being introduced, that she saw her again. Kathy Yutzee had moved from that same small town more than 300 miles away to teach at Mennonite.

“You talk about providence,” Lannie said.

More than 50 years later, her connection to Mennonite remains strong. The 2015 recipient of the Mennonite Distinguished Alumni Award is a popular speaker at the annual candlelight ceremony and serves as director of the Mennonite Nurses Alumni Organization. She has left her home to the college in her estate plan, designating the proceeds be used for scholarships. Her only regret is that she won’t be able to meet those students.

“They will be my children,” Lannie said. She and her late husband, Bernard, were never parents. “Students helped by the financial support will reach out and minister to the ill, the dying. It will just be an extension of my heart, my principals, my philosophy and my hands. I would just love to meet them so badly now, but that’s OK. What I care about is that my house and the land will make this profession possible for someone else.”

What you need to know

Look into hospice room from hallway

There are no easy answers for how to handle the impending death of a loved one. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Alumna Vickie Lannie knows from experience how to help the terminally ill.

Follow their lead. If they want to talk about dying, listen. It’s likely the person understands what’s happening.

Allow them to tell their story. Reassure them the survivors will be OK. If the person has small children, offer assurance that they will be cared for and loved.

Provide as much normalcy and routine as possible.

Reassure the loved one that the pain will be controlled, then keep them comfortable.

When conversation is no longer possible, still connect physically. A gentle touch lets them know they’re not alone.

Keep talking, even when they’re no longer able to respond. Get close to their ears. Hearing is the last sense to leave the body, so it’s possible they can still hear you. Avoid loud noises, but have their favorite music playing when no one is in the room.

Always leave on a soft or dim light. People who are dying will often turn toward light.

The dying often use symbolic language. If they talk about wanting to go “home,” ask what that means. It may mean the comfort or security of home, not the place, or it may have religious meaning. Work to get them home with hospice care.

Say goodbye before it’s too late. The dying have an uncanny ability to choose the moment of death. Many will wait until the family leaves. Understand it may be the patient’s choice to spare loved ones those final moments.