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Unity hospice nurse serving people facing end-of-life experiences

| Monday, Nov. 19, 2012, 12:42 a.m.
John Robinson R.N. Jim Ference | The Valley Independent
John Robinson R.N. with his book 'On My Journey Home'. Jim Ference | The Valley Independent

John Robinson will never forget the words of a gravely ill man that inspired him.

“He said ‘John, I don't feel like dying today,'” Robinson said. “That changed my life.

“I realized I wanted to make a difference in his life.”

Although the cancer-ridden man died two days later, his spirit lives on in Robinson.

A supervisor of nursing at a care facility in Massachusetts, he would stay after hours with residents who had grave illnesses.

“I made a decision this is what I have to do for the rest of my life,” said Robinson, who works in Monongahela and lives in Vanderbilt.

A native of Pittsfield, Mass., Robinson graduated from Berkshire Community College with an associate degree in nursing.

He came to southwestern Pennsylvania for a chance to work in hospice care. He was hired on the spot.

The company held the job for Robinson as he found a home and remodeled it. That home played an integral part in his life — and in the many lives he has touched.

Robinson and his wife, Bobbi, purchased a mid-19th century building known locally as the Unity schoolhouse and opened “Unity a Journey Home,” southwestern Pennsylvania's first residential hospice house. Each resident was granted at least one wish as part of the care and therapy he or she received.

In August 2007, the Robinsons created the nonprofit adult wish charity: Unity, A Journey of Hope.

The following year, Robinson became a hospice nurse for Amedisys Corp., a Baton Rouge, La.-based home care and hospice company. For many like Robinson, it is more than a job, it is a vocation honored in November during National Hospice Month.

With his trademark smile, Robinson said a sense of humor is beneficial to lift the spirits of those whose lives he affects daily.

“Every visit, we sit and talk,” Robinson said. “We share life stories; we joke. I don't remind you that you have a life-limiting illness. I sing. I pray with my patients.”

In reality, he is preparing patients and their families. That's what led to his book, “On My Journey Home.” Recently released, it is available at .

The first 32 pages of the book are dedicated to “the end of life journey” and signs of symptoms of that journey.

There are books on hospice, Robinson explained, but none written from the patients' point of view.

“It's an accumulation of what my patients have told me over the last 12 years,” Robinson said.

The final pages are dedicated to Robinson's experiences as a hospice nurse.

“I speak of giving people hope and never giving up,” Robinson said.

He notes the example of Joan, who was 12 years old when she was diagnosed with a brain tumor and given just months to live. Her family led a nonstop prayer vigil for Joan, who is now 75.

He also writes of the “comfort angels,” loved ones who have died and who come back to provide comfort in a patient's final days. He cites the example of his mother-in-law, Donna Jean Black, who at 58 was diagnosed with end-stage cancer.

“She said who was there and was very explicit who was there,” Robinson said.

“Two days later, she ceased to breathe.”

Last year, Robinson was named Amedisys Hospice Caregiver of the Year for the northeast region. Employees at its Monongahela office nominated Robinson. He was one of 22 among 17,000 employees nationwide chosen by a nominating committee.

Robinson said he is driven by the opportunity to make a difference in people's lives.

“When you have a diagnosis of a life-limiting illness, the patients and their families are so overwhelmed,” Robinson said. “And to take them on that journey, to provide respect and dignity and knowledge – that's what gives me satisfaction. I get up every morning, and I can't wait to go to work.”

Chris Buckley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-684-2642 or