Photo courtesy of Denise McKnight

As families prepare for an untraditional Thanksgiving, palliative care social worker Denise McKnight is collecting money ahead of the holiday to help provide meals to hospice patients who can’t be with loved ones because of Covid-19 restrictions. 

She was inspired earlier this year by her sister, Eboni, who delivered meals from Firebirds Wood Fired Grill to terminally ill patients on Easter morning. McKnight also brought two meals to hospice patients on Easter, but her “giving spirit” couldn’t let her stop helping those in need of food and companionship. 

A native of Long Beach, California, McKnight became a social worker not for the money, but because she wanted to give back to people in dire need of assistance. While organizations do help feed families on Thanksgiving, McKnight says many of them don’t think about the family members who are dying alone because of chronic conditions.

“Our hope is every patient under hospice services dies with dignity and respect,” she said. “They should be able to spend that time with their family, be it video or whatever. We don’t want anyone to die alone.” 

Partnering for the cause

Since her sister is now a social worker at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in California, McKnight had to find another co-worker at Novant Health to help her deliver meals. Nurse Dollie Steele approached McKnight about helping hospice patients this month in recognition of National Hospice and Palliative Care Month. 

“We were on the same page,” McKnight told QCity Metro. 

The two women collected donations from co-workers to buy pre-prepared meals and deliver them to seven hospice patients on Thanksgiving morning. McKnight said she preferred the ready-made meals from restaurants because it limits the amount of contact that people have with the food. The planned menu will be turkey with sides and pie from Metro Diner in Huntersville.

Since Steele and McKnight work with terminally ill patients, they have to double-check meal orders for an accurate count. 

“You can have 10 people that need a meal, and then by the time Thanksgiving comes, you can be down by one,” McKnight said. “That’s the unfortunate thing; we are in the business of hospice where people sometimes unfortunately die and don’t make it to that holiday.”

McKnight said hospice service workers typically explain to patients that they have six months or less to live under hospice care. Often, patients make a goal for themselves, like living until Christmas or Thanksgiving, she said. However, she hasn’t heard them talk much about living until a particular holiday or time of the year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Alternative ways to celebrate

Before Covid, McKnight suggested that families celebrate the holidays earlier so family members in hospice care could experience one last Christmas or Thanksgiving. Now, she encourages families to create videos with well-wishes. Zoom and other online chat services have been helpful during the pandemic because it allows patients to be with their families even though they can’t be with them in person. 

McKnight and other social workers care for patients in their homes 90% of the time and in facilities 10%. For safety, social workers wear personal protective equipment, including face masks, face shields, gowns and foot coverings.

North Carolina’s Covid restrictions under Phase 3 also require hospice caregivers to be more proactive with families. 

Nowadays, McKnight says she has to reiterate safety guidelines to families that are persistent about visiting hospice patients for the holidays.

“I know some of these holidays are the last they will have with their families, but unfortunately with Covid-19, you can’t get that family together if you want to keep that patient safe,” she said. 

According to CarePlus Hospice, additional ways that families can celebrate Thanksgiving in honor of loved ones in hospice care include: 

  • Lighting a special candle to symbolize a loved one’s presence.
  • Preparing a loved one’s favorite dish as a way of remembering him or her.
  • Creating a “memory table.”
  • Making a list of all the things about a loved one for which you are most thankful.
  • Setting a place at the table where a loved one would have been seated.

Jonathan is a former QCity Metro reporter who covered Charlotte neighborhoods north of uptown. He also reported on education, public safety and health.

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