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Eulogy for Joan Blumenfeld

By Donna B. Fedus

I first met Joan as a student. She was the student. I was in my mid 40s and she was in her mid 70s. Joan participated generously in the courses I gave even though she could have taught many of the subjects herself.

Over the years, Joan became a colleague, mentor and friend. Our relationship got much closer when we created a class together on PTSD and dementia. We exchanged ideas in flurries of emails and multiple meetings.

Once the class was over we continued to meet for dinner and lectures, and Joan invited me to join the networking group she hosted. She was so proud of the fact that as of the month before she died, the group had been meeting for 17 years without an agenda, officers, minutes, or even a pot of coffee.

Then, last year, Joan allowed her photo and a few facts about her life to be used for a program I designed to challenge age stereotypes. Nearly 200 people attended the event where they learned that at age 84, Joan took ballroom, ballet and Pilate’s classes every week. She couldn’t attend because she had just returned the day before from a trip to Alaska.

We set up a lunch date to catch up after her trip, but never met. Little did we know what that week in October would bring for her. 

It turned out that Joan had been diagnosed in August with stage IV lung cancer. She went on a planned trip to Alaska in late September — she wasn’t going to miss that trip — and started chemotherapy early October. Then, she landed in intensive care because she was in the one-half of one percent of people who respond badly to the chemotherapy.

When Joan’s dear friend Sharon told our networking group Joan was so very sick, we were all shocked. I was afraid we would never get to talk again. But, after two and a half weeks in intensive care, Joan bounced back — and she wanted to work!

In October, she wrote:

Donna dear,

We need to meet and talk. I’m recovering and full of ideas for how to use this nasty experience in the most constructive of ways. In a week or so let’s make a lunch date and have some serious fun with my new mission of learning and teaching how to do this part as gracefully as I seemed able to do the other parts of life 😊 Right now I’m having excellent live-in care provided by my LTC folks! Been paying through the nose for years…time to collect! Hugs to you!

Joan wrote terrific emails.

By the time we met in November, about a month after nearly dying, Joan had already drafted five blog posts about her experience.  She asked for my thoughts on how we could get the word out further. If Joan wanted to teach, I wanted to listen and to help her achieve her goal.

So, at that meeting, we brainstormed a short list. We could collaborate to do 4 things. We agreed that she would guest lecture about end of life and palliative care in a college course I was teaching. We would create a continuing education course about palliative care, and I introduced Joan to 2 people. One was Sue Sweitzer, a good friend who worked in palliative care for years accompanying people at the end of life and serving as a Bereavement Counselor. I also introduced Joan to Lauren Lewis, my sister who is a producer, because we thought video was a powerful way to share Joan’s journey. Our “Core Four” began meeting on a regular basis beginning in December 2016, and we became part of Joan’s support team.

We had no idea how the project would evolve, but through our work together:

  • We filmed Living With Palliative Care, a documentary that will feature Joan herself sharing her own end of life journey, along with additional perspectives from Joan’s family and healthcare team
  • It will also tell the story of Palliative Care
  • The film is currently being edited and educational programs are in development
  • Joan hoped that others facing hard diagnoses would benefit, along with their families, healthcare professionals, students and the general public

I do believe that the project will help others, but it also helped Joan.

  • She was able to engage in the very important process of life review, and to gain perspective on her illness and end of life experience
  • It gave her one outlet for her expansive creativity, many moments to laugh, and to impact others
  • Joan said that working on the project allowed her to maintain her professional identity after she closed her geriatric care management practice, and that she hoped the film would be her public legacy

It was an incredible gift to work with someone so intellectually engaging, direct and honest, funny and emotionally supportive. Joan was a tremendous role model for me, and for so many others — especially women — from multiple generations. She taught us how to see people and situations with deep compassion and warmth, and to find the humor whenever possible.

Joan taught by example about grace and resilience. She used what life handed her to learn, become stronger, and help others. It was truly an honor to be part of this very real, very meaningful stage of Joan’s life.

I’ll wrap up by saying that like most people in Joan’s presence, my students at Quinnipiac University were extremely moved by her. After she told them about her illness and her experience with palliative care, they asked how she could be so calm facing end of life. One of her main pieces of advice was, “Do your therapy now so you can be at peace when you reach my age.”

One student said that Joan’s talk was the best class of her entire college experience and that, “Everyone could learn a little something from Joan Blumenfeld.”

Note: A slightly shorter version of this eulogy was given at Joan’s Memorial Service on 7-30-17.

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