PENINSULA WOMAN: Hospice nurse helps patients navigate rough path of grief

SEQUIM — Sky Heatherton has navigated more than her share of nights filled with fear.

They started after one Tuesday afternoon in September, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

On Wednesday morning, she was in surgery. Heatherton, 67, underwent a double mastectomy, the beginning of a twisting, turning path she has managed to walk with two companions by her side: love and art.

A painter who has adorned large canvases with scenes from across the world — she painted Portofino, Italy, on a door, for instance — Heatherton knew that making art would help. But with her body recovering from major surgery, she also knew she had to choose smaller projects, ones she could finish in a night or two.

So she set to painting wooden walking sticks, with the dotted style she’d seen in Australian aboriginal art. Then she painted wooden birdhouses and wooden fish to look like the vivid swimmers she’d met while snorkeling Oahu’s Hanauma Bay.

Her husband, Thomas East, could always tell the next morning what kind of night it had been. If she’d painted in bright colors, it wasn’t bad. Dark tones meant it was.

Still, Heatherton said, “I could shut off the voices of doubt, anger and fear, as I immersed myself [in] the paint colors and the feel of the brush strokes.”

Last October, when she was strong enough to go out, Heatherton thought she’d attend a cancer support group meeting at the Olympic Medical Cancer Center in Sequim.

Trouble was, “I couldn’t walk through the door.”

A woman saw her standing outside and merely held out a hand.

She and Heatherton went in to the meeting together.

In the months since, Heatherton has met other cancer survivors who lighted their dark tunnels with art: music, quilting, painting, poetry, photography.

And so this spring, she got an idea. Bring these artists together in a gallery exhibition, a display that celebrates life through art of any kind.

Next, Heatherton asked Sharon Shenar, manager of the Landing Art Gallery in Port Angeles, for her opinion.

“I thought it was a brilliant idea,” Shenar said in an interview last week. And since October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, she scheduled the show for that month at the gallery inside The Landing mall at 115 E. Railroad Ave.

As for Heatherton, “She just took the ball and ran with it,” Shenar added.

Heatherton is also back at work in Sequim, back at the profession she loves: nursing at Assured Hospice. The agency supports her art exhibition as a community education project — part of her work as patient care representative and volunteer coordinator — though it’s “not normally part of the job description.”

The show, titled “Embracing Life Through Art: The Journey Back,” is open to textiles, paintings, sculpture collage, pen and ink, carvings, jewelry and just about everything else, Heatherton notes. She hopes to see contributors from all backgrounds — and certainly not only from professional artists.

And she shrugs at those who might judge the entries as not “real art.”

“It’s from someone who has reached out and expressed themselves,” she says. And that makes it real.

Heatherton knows plenty about reaching out.

As a nurse for the past 34 years, she has worked in many settings, from hospitals to helicopters, where she flew with patients airlifted from the Tahoe National Forest in California.

As a hospice nurse who cares for terminally ill patients and their families, Heatherton believes she has come to one of the most honorable types of health care that exists. She likes to say that she works for “an escort service,” escorting the dying across the bridge.

Hospice workers — such as the 15 staffers and 12 volunteers at Assured Hospice — also seek to bring relief to the living. They offer respite care; they bring meals to help spouses who are too exhausted to cook.

And they simply stay beside the ones who are grieving.

Heatherton herself experienced that kind of devotion as she was recovering from her surgeries last fall. Her friends fed her, literally and spiritually, and her husband was her “faithful nurse.”

He was there when she stepped in front of a mirror for the first time after her double mastectomy. Heatherton had had a voluptuous figure — and she didn’t think she could bear to look at the scars left by the surgery.

Thomas, seeing her pain, laid his head gently on her chest.

He said, “This is the closest I have ever been to your heart.”

Then there’s her friend Laraine Gau, who became like a sister after she heard of Heatherton’s illness. When Heatherton was too weak to cook, Gau “made up pots of stew, and just ‘happened to be in the neighborhood.’

“She didn’t ask ‘Can I do anything for you?’” Heatherton recalls. Instead, “she saw a need, and she filled it.”

Heatherton and Gau became fast friends when Heatherton moved the Peninsula nearly three years ago. She and Thomas rented a house Gau owns until they found their own place between Port Angeles and Sequim.

Coming to the Olympic Peninsula was “a huge life change,” Heatherton says. She grew up in San Diego and lived in cities all over California before the move north. She was raised by her mother and stepfather, after her father, a medic, was killed in World War II’s Battle of the Bulge just four days after Heatherton was born. Her mother later married her father’s best friend, Charles Duggie, a theologian who taught his stepdaughter to appreciate differences in religious beliefs.

Heatherton is now writing a book for hospice workers on Olympic Peninsula Native American tribes’ rites of death and dying.

She’s interviewing elders in the Hoh, Elwha, Quileute, Jamestown S’Klallam, Lower Elwha Klallam, Makah and other tribes, to learn about their traditions around death and grieving process, with the intention of helping hospice workers complement them. Each tribe has developed its own distinct beliefs and practices, she says.

As a nurse and as an artist, Heatherton finds inspiration — and fresh energy — in her environment. She still considers herself new to the North Olympic Peninsula, and she’s still awestruck.

“I have the ocean, the strait, the trees, the eagles — I have everything,” she says.

“Sequim I consider my home base; Port Townsend is my backyard and Port Angeles is my front yard.”

Heatherton also finds a sweet camaraderie among the people in Assured Hospice’s Sequim office. When there is a difficult passing, when a patient has suffered far too much, she and her colleagues get together and simply “vent.” They also take “minute vacations,” stepping outside to look up at the Olympic Mountains.

She touts the volunteers, too, devoted workers such as John Glover, who cooks meals for his patients’ families. Through training and experiences, Heatherton adds, she’s watched these unpaid workers “blossom into volunteers who are absolutely incredible.”

Hospice care is not for the faint of heart, of course. Sometimes there are long-standing family conflicts, and sometimes, a nurse or a volunteer can help make peace.

For the husbands, wives, sisters and brothers of the one who is dying, hospice workers provide respite care, so a spouse can slip out for a cup of coffee with friends. So a relative can write in a journal about the swirling emotions that can come with an impending loss.

“You have to take care of the living,” Heatherton says, adding that she tries to “pull things together . . . to give people peace of mind.”

Heatherton is herself finding a new kind of peace, one that feels just like joy.

She’s still on a regimen of medication, and is not yet entirely free of malignant cells — but Heatherton insists on gratitude.

“You can’t live on what-ifs. You’ve got to be in the now,” she says. “Death is there, facing us all.”

Having suffered enough from her mastectomies, Heatherton chose not to have reconstructive surgery. Nowadays, though, she feels quite pretty, and loves to dress well, wear a flashy necklace, and enter a meeting or a social gathering with “head up, shoulders back,” showing people just how good life can be after cancer.

“I am thrilled with life,” she says. “I’m enjoying this time . . . I’m old enough to flirt; I’m old enough to enjoy just being a woman.”

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