Keeping Katie

“Whether we are nearing the end of the day or the end of a life, time with loved ones and a strong support system are blessings beyond compare.”
Image: Brent, Jennifer and Katie Huhta with her 12 siblings, ages 2 to 20. (Katie is pictured in the middle row, second from left.)

Family puts trust in hospice, partnership touches many

Managing a family of 15 while caring for an ailing child requires emotional stamina, collaboration and consistent support. So when Brent and Jennifer Huhta of Big Lake learned the likely course of their 12-year-old daughter Katie’s cancer in February 2014, they joined forces with St. Cloud Hospital Hospice.

“Not all families have the support system Brent and I are blessed with,” Jennifer said. “But even with that in place, trusting hospice through this has been integral. I can’t imagine doing it all ourselves.”

In 2009, a persistent tummy ache and pounding head led to the discovery of Katie’s brain tumor. A five-year battle ensued, including countless surgeries and radiation treatments. The Huhtas started a CaringBridge site to share updates with friends, family, neighbors, school contacts, church members and other connections from all over the globe. When Katie’s oncologist said it was time, the Huhtas invited Hospice Nurse Molly Dunn into their home and support network.

Hospice within the larger framework

“Hospice makes the emotional journey more manageable,” Jennifer said. “So when I’m wondering, ‘Why do I feel like this?’ we troubleshoot and walk through it together. They’d explain grieving in terms of a personality type and say, ‘This is how you grieve, and that’s OK.’ But it’s important to find a good fit for the family. If the nurse doesn’t fit, try again.”

Luckily, the Huhtas didn’t have to try again. Molly was “in cahoots” with Katie in no time, smuggling craft supplies into the house upon request and teasing playfully in true sassy, sarcastic Katie style. Molly worked to ensure Katie’s comfort and offered the Huhtas emotional support and affirmation while helping to make sense of each physical change.

When Brent and Jennifer began to observe behavioral issues in their younger children, a social worker recommended giving St. Cloud Hospital Hospice Bereavement Services a try. The Huhtas grew their support network once more, opening their doors to Bereavement Coordinator Melissa Ryan-Wocken.

After an unsuccessful group bereavement session, staff worked with Jennifer to develop an approach that would account for the unique needs of both the older and younger children and suit the dynamics of a large family.

“On the second go-around of sessions, we sent the ‘bigs’ out and left the ‘littles’ in,” Jennifer said. “I could see a visible difference in my kids’ emotional disposition. They were not as fazed by how sick Katie looked and began to realize she’s no longer going to be with us.”

Shortly after Melissa began talking with Katie’s younger siblings, 11-year-old Nathan startled his mom with unexpected insight. Jennifer remembers him sitting on the couch looking at the wall of portraits arranged by age.

“He pointed and said, ‘Look, Mom. I’ll be next to Katie forever,’” Jennifer recalled. “And then he says, ‘The rest of us will get old, but Katie’s lucky. She’s gonna stay just the way she is.’ You can see that he understands — he just needed someone to help him over a hump.”

With every end, a new beginning

On a warm August evening, Nurse Molly recognized signs that the end was near. She helped Brent and Jennifer lay Katie comfortably in bed, and Melissa coached the younger children through their goodbyes.

As a devotional reading took place in Katie’s room, a larger group of family and friends gathered elsewhere in the house to sing songs and hymns, including Katie’s favorite, "God Made the Sun Brightly to Shine." Brent said that Katie slipped away the moment she received the final blessing, to “leave this life of trial for a better one.” Katie’s heart stopped, and Molly confirmed for those present that she was gone.

“Katie has achieved what we all are striving for, to be at home in heaven one day,” Brent wrote on Aug. 7, two days after her passing. “It has been such a long, long journey. Even knowing that this end was coming — for months, years even — it still came as a shock.”

The Huhtas have the opportunity to maintain the relationship they have developed with hospice staff in the coming months as they cope with the loss and approach moving forward.

“Some can do it alone, but it will be for a price. You have to consider if it’s a price you want to pay,” Jennifer said. “I cannot make a decision for somebody else or tell someone, ‘You should, you must, you have to.’ Trusting hospice needs to be a decision from within you.”

Ultimately, the relationship between hospice and the Huhta family has been a reciprocal one. Hospice and Bereavement staff ease emotional strain by offering guidance in the realms of medical care and healthful coping. In return, the Huhtas remind those they have touched why hospice exists: Whether we are nearing the end of the day or the end of a life, time with loved ones and a strong support system are blessings beyond compare.

If you are considering hospice care for a loved one, call CentraCare Hospice at 320-259-9375 or 800-835-6610 (toll free) to learn more.