In the four and a half months since my beloved Doug died, I have begun to heal, emotionally, mentally, and physically.  Unwillingly at first, I've begun to weave myself together as a new person, knowing very well that my experience as "Annie" will never be exactly as it was before.  

This selfie shows me that light is returning to my eyes, and although I would drop everything and run into Doug's arms if he suddenly appeared, I now, once again, recognize my light, the light that exists as Annie, despite everything.

Every day I allow myself plenty of room to feel and express my honest emotions, and I also repeatedly focus my attention on the best of what was, to help me move forward.  Today I want to publicly give attention to the best of Doug's medical team, the wonderful caregivers at Benefis Health System in Great Falls, Montana, USA, people who cared for Doug - and me - not only clinically but also emotionally and communally.  

During the thirteen months of Doug's illness, dozens of caregivers and coworkers at Benefis did their best to help Doug beat penile cancer and later, to let go while feeling loved, respected, and accepted just as he was.  They gave the same depth of care to me, his constant companion and advocate, and today I am glad to share with you a letter of gratitude I wrote shortly after Doug passed.  

I wrote this letter to John Goodnow, CEO of Benefis Health System, to recognize the highlights of Doug's care.  If I were to document every moment of compassion we received, meal that was delivered or clinical excellence that occurred, this post would be dozens of pages long. My sincere wish for you is that if you are ever a patient (anywhere in the world), you and those who love you will receive equally excellent, loving care.

John Goodnow, CEO
Benefis Health System
Great Falls, Montana

November 28, 2016

Dear John,

I want to express my gratitude to you and the Benefis family for the many ways you all supported my late husband, Doug, and me during the past year.  Doug and I were both employees of Benefis (Doug was in ITS and I’m in the Human Resources Division).  Before he was diagnosed with penile cancer in October of last year, Doug and I agreed that Benefis was by far the best organization we’d ever worked for.  We were proud to represent Benefis, even though we had only been here for a few months.  Little did we know then how many opportunities we would have to reinforce that pride.

Doug passed away on November 5, 2016 at Benefis Peace Hospice.  In memory of him, and to honor the many people who served both him and me, I want to describe for you some of the highlights we experienced in the past year.  This is a long letter so I’ve organized the information by group and in reverse chronological order.  Feel free to use part or all of the letter in any way that might serve Benefis Health System.

Life Insurance Benefit

I want to thank you for providing life insurance to all employees at no cost to us.  Even though this is a standard benefit in larger organizations I want you to know that I do not take it for granted.  The life insurance that Benefis provided to my husband is going to enable me to buy a small house and cover our shared expenses while I figure out how to live on one salary again. 

If it weren’t for this benefit I would be in great distress because we did not carry our own life insurance policy. Pam Blackwell in HR has been very responsive to all of my questions and very efficient in processing my claim paperwork. She is wonderful to work with.

ITS, HR and Accounting Staff

Shortly after Doug passed, the staff from these three departments held their quarterly get-together.  This time, however, they made it into a fund raiser for me, as a surprise.  How amazing these people are, who had already give us so much in the form of donated PTO, visits to our home and hospice room, encouraging words and coverage for us when we were away from work.  In one evening they generated nearly $2,000 in donations!

Another huge gift I received from the ITS staff is that they all gathered together and video recorded themselves singing Happy Birthday to Doug.  Doug had been determined to make it to his 52nd birthday, November 7, but I knew he was suffering and I asked my friends to help encourage him to let go.  Tears ran down my cheeks as I played the video of Doug’s coworkers singing to him. It was such a compassionate act from a wonderful group of people whom Doug loved.  Even though Doug wasn’t responsive, I know he heard their singing because he passed a couple of hours later, seconds after hearing his daughters sing Happy Birthday over the phone. 

My family in the HR Division have been a powerful source of support for me from the very beginning.  As I prepare to return to work in a few days I know that I will be welcomed with warmth, compassion and understanding, which I truly need in order to heal and do my best work.

Benefis Peace Hospice

Doug arrived at Hospice just 10 days before he passed and he was cared for in our home for four weeks before that.  Amanda Court was his primary nurse. Her friendly, kind demeanor and excellent nursing skills put both of us at ease and I think she helped Doug to feel proud of who he was, even though he wasn’t able to provide for me in the ways he used to.

The staff who cared for Doug at Peace Hospice were kind, respectful and responsive to his needs.  His arrival was distressing but the staff, as well as Audrey and Vickie, came together to hear him and respond.  Even though it came so late in his young life, for Doug to clearly express his feelings and wishes and then to have those respected was life-changing for him and I will forever be grateful to have witnessed those interactions.

After he passed the staff sent me handwritten cards with special memories of Doug’s fun personality and our uniquely powerful love.  Knowing that they considered me to be a good caregiver for Doug and reading their observations of our love meant the world to me.

Benefis Executive Team PTO Donations

I don’t know who on the executive team donated PTO to me. I wish I did so I could thank them individually. Their generosity made it possible for me to spend the last five weeks of Doug’s life with him, right by his side where we both wanted me to be.  I will never be able to express what that gift gave to us, and to me especially since I now have to live without him; the memories of that time we had together are precious to me. 

The Ladies in Administration

After Doug passed I received a beautiful arrangement of plants from “The ladies in administration.”  I have an idea but don’t know exactly who was included in that group and I don’t know any of them very well, yet they went out of their way to give me a gift and let me know they were thinking of me. 

Benefis Emergency Department

For months before Doug went into hospice care he needed emergency care at least weekly to address dehydration and other issues.  No matter the time of day or night, Kevin Langkiet responded to my texts to answer my questions and then call ahead so the ED staff would be ready for our arrival. At each visit we were treated with respect and kindness, two qualities that were particularly important for a man who had lost his penis to cancer and was quite overweight.  Doug and I always thanked each person who cared for him, and we meant it.

When Doug was receiving at-home hospice care Kevin called to let us know that the Mercy Flight team wanted to take us on a tour of the fall foliage and they’d approached your executive team themselves for permission.  We were so surprised and touched!  Even though Doug wasn’t able to fly, he radiated with joy knowing that people he barely knew were thinking of him and wanted to give him this very special gift.

Benefis Spectrum Durable Medical Equipment

The day we decided to stop chemotherapy and enter into at-home hospice care was one of the worst days of our lives.  Audrey from Hospice made the enrollment process as easy as possible; she even came to Sletten to sit with us while Doug received fluids. 

One immediate benefit of this change in care was that we would now receive a hospital bed at home. Doug had been sleeping in a recliner for eight months!  We were eager for him to get into a real bed but it was Friday afternoon and we figured we’d have to wait until Monday.  I called Spectrum around 3pm that day and asked when they could deliver the bed. “How about in 30 minutes?” was the reply.  Talk about excellent service! 

They did not have a bariatric bed in stock but they delivered a bed that worked just fine, knowing they’d have to come back in a few days to remove it and bring in a bariatric bed.  We were so grateful they were willing to go to that trouble.  Amanda from Hospice provided a wonderful foam mattress pad that made the bed very comfortable for Doug. 

He had never complained about sleeping in the recliner, but I realized how uncomfortable it must have been when he kept saying how much better the bed felt.  I was, and still am, grateful that Doug received that measure of comfort when he’d been suffering from such intense physical pain for so long.

Benefis Sletten Cancer Institute

Doug received care in both Radiation Oncology and Medical Oncology.  Jazmyn was our favorite person at the registration desk.  She always had a bright smile for us and often had Doug’s paperwork ready before we even reached her counter.  And Kevin Evensen often would stop to check-in with us, asking how we were and whether we needed anything.

The staff who cared for Doug during his radiation treatments matched his playful energy and made those visits as comfortable as possible.  Just before the treatments began I had delivered a presentation, available to all staff, titled “Self-Care in Healthcare: How to Recharge Your Energy and Renew Your Passion,” which most of the Sletten staff had attended. I appreciated hearing their positive comments about the presentation and Doug beamed with pride when they told him what they thought of his wife; that actually reduced his stress and put him at ease regarding his treatment.

Dr. Bryan Martin, Sue, Amanda, Maureen, Paula and others in Medical Oncology helped us navigate the long and painful process of chemotherapy treatments.  They were kind, compassionate, responsive to questions and quick to offer help when we needed it.

Bryan and Doug quickly developed a friendly rapport, which put Doug at ease and helped him to feel “normal” again.  Other than remission, that truly was the most valuable gift he could have received.

Bryan and the staff sent me a card after Doug passed and, once again, I was comforted by the ways in which Doug (and we) had touched others.

Nursing Leaders

Late in the summer I reached the point where I could no longer manage all of my responsibilities, at least not without suffering a nervous breakdown! I posted on Facebook a request for help with meals and many friends jumped into action. Then Liz Coates sent me a message telling me that the nursing leaders wanted to help. 

They had already surprised me with a beautiful gift basket, gift cards and money, yet they wanted to do more!  I told Liz what Doug liked and within days she arrived at my door with enough meals to last us for several weeks.  Not only did I feel relieved not to have to cook, I also felt deeply cared for and supported. 

Dr. Bearss

Dr. Roland Bearss was Doug’s urologist.  It was he who performed a biopsy and diagnosed Doug’s cancer in 2015, and he who quickly found a surgeon in Seattle who had experience with penile cancer.  Dr. Bearss continued to care for Doug after surgery to address an on-going issue and he and his staff sent me a card after Doug passed.  Doug told me many times how much he appreciated Dr. Bearss’ calm demeanor and sincere kindness.  I will forever be grateful to Casey Buckingham for coordinating Doug’s first appointment with Dr. Bearss.


I’ve lost count of how many surgeries Doug endured. But I haven’t lost the memory of how well cared for he was by all of the staff in surgical services.  I appreciated their consistency with hand hygiene, something I watched for, and their confident reassurance that everything would go well.  They took excellent care of Doug and respectfully included me in his care.


I can’t tell you how many times I heard someone tell Doug that he was one of their favorite patients, and I know why they felt that way.  Doug Wilson was an exceptional man, a man with a sharp, creative mind; a strong, tattooed body; a huge heart and a sparkling personality.  I will forever be grateful to have been loved by him.  And, I will forever be grateful to have watched him receive the quality of care that he deserved. 

If I ever become a millionaire, Benefis Health System will be the first to receive a donation!  In the meantime, I’ll do my best to help us become the best health system in Montana, and beyond.




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