Love of Life

Nov. 13-19, 2003
Love of Life
By Eileen Jevis/ SUN staff writer
Teacher faces end of life with courage and strong beliefs

The students at Bishop Ludden Junior/High School know what “P.B.U.T.C.” stands for. They’ve been hearing it recited to them day after day, year after year by religious education teacher Catherine Millington. “Do your ‘personal best under the circumstances,’” she has always told them, while she too, lived by this credo. Millington has been a teacher at Bishop Ludden for 28 years and for the past 10 years has held the position of chairman of religious studies. Her teaching job is her life and her vocation. She constantly worried that “her personal best” as a teacher wouldn’t be good enough and she would burn out.

Her worries became insignificant when in March, Millington went to the doctor because she was suffering from an upper respiratory and sinus infection. The doctor took an X-ray looking for pneumonia, but instead found inoperable lung cancer. The doctor’s prognosis was that Millington had two to four months to live. Seven months later, Millington has given up her classroom teaching. However, during pain-free moments she continues to instruct and advise a few of her students through journal correspondence. She has also planned her funeral Mass and written her obituary. “I’m obsessive-compulsive,” said Millington. In trying to make it easier for those she’s leaving behind, she is doing everything she can to have all the arrangements tied up. “In the process, I’m driving those around me crazy. The crises in my life have centered around death,” said Millington. “I know what it’s like for those left behind.”

Even though Millington smokes, the type of lung cancer she has is genetic. Her father and two of her sisters have died from it. She calls it her family’s “genetic monster.” In a letter she wrote to the staff at Bishop Ludden, Millington encouraged them to share their anger about the stupidity of her addiction to smoking. “I tried the ‘just say no’ approach as well as various programs and acupuncture.” But she was always lured back to the addiction. Millington was a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet for 15 years but left the order. “I finally realized my doubts were caused by the institutional church and not the God of my belief,” she said. “I turned toward following the teachings of Jesus and dedicated my life to Him more strongly and compassionately than I ever had.” As a result, Millington doesn’t need to have faith in prayer –– she knows of its effectiveness. “Faith is unknown and unseen,” said Millington. “Belief in the power of prayer has now become knowledge. I know of its validity.”

That belief in the power of prayer has kept Millington from self-pity. She has found happiness, meaning and fulfillment in life. “Even with stage four lung cancer, I don’t have any problems with self-pity,” she said. “There would be no way I could justify it, even on bad days. I have a wonderful family and friends and a fantastic job. I can’t say ‘poor me,’ because I’ve had so many blessings in my life.” One of those blessing for Millington, has been the involvement of Hospice in her life. “Doctor Scalzo recommended Hospice because he knew how quickly I go down hill in a hospital setting,” said Millington. “He and I had the same goal –– for me to maintain a quality of life for as long as possible.” Millington’s primary care provider is her roommate, Sister Mary Ellen Shirtz, CSJ, who also suffers with medical problems. Sister Mary Ellen has had eight back surgeries due to a degenerative disc disease. “I worried about how long Sister Mary Ellen would be able to care for me,” said Millington. “Hospice has given me incredible peace of mind.”

During the initial visit, a Hospice representative evaluated all of Millington’s needs, explained their services, the cost and insurance coverage. “Within an hour of that initial visit, oxygen, a wedge for the bed and other necessary supplies were delivered to the door. During one visit, they ordered an air conditioning unit for me so that I could breathe easier during the hot months,” said Millington. When Millington’s pain became extremely severe, a Hospice nurse was at her door within 20 minutes. She diagnosed her, called her doctor and administered medication. “They’ve been a Godsend,” said Sister Mary Ellen. Millington said her priorities haven’t changed much since being told she only had a few months to live. “The basic choices I made a long time ago haven’t changed,” she said. “They continue to be my fundamental belief in God, my family and my friends.” In a letter Millington prepared for her students, she said, “I have two intense feelings about my death. One is your pain, sadness and loss, and mine, at having to leave you physically. The other is gratitude for all of the blessings that are accompanying me on this part of my journey.”

Her letter went on to tell her students a little about what she was feeling. “I have no regrets about living the life I chose to live. I was always loved and I was fortunate enough to recognize it along the way. I’m immersed in and surrounded by the love of my family and friends and am truly overwhelmed by their support and concern. I am happy that I was a good teacher, right up to the end. In the back of my mind, I was always concerned that I’d burn out and make the kids miserable.” Millington worried about having the emotional stamina to say goodbye to her students. She wasn’t given the opportunity because her last day of work was unplanned. She just became too ill to go on. Her final message to her students was this: “Know for sure that I will have died in peace with the God of my belief and those I love. I will also have died with a grateful heart and a humongous list of questions for the God of my belief.”

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