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Public historian, hospice give gifts of oral history

by DEVIN WEEKS
Staff Writer | April 5, 2021 1:08 AM

Those last few weeks and days of life can be some of the hardest.

Hearts break and words become scarce as lives are imagined with one less beloved soul to fill them.

Before Auburn Crest Hospice patients reach eternal rest, they have the opportunity to leave parting gifts that may soothe woe-wearied family members and provide a sense of closure for all involved.

Those gifts are their stories.

"Sometimes, it's not medicine that helps people die peacefully," said Mike Haycraft, Auburn Crest Hospice executive director.

Haycraft and the Auburn Crest team have created a special position to capture those stories, knowing that role would be filled by the perfect person for the job: Public historian Sara Jane Ruggles.

"She really ties everything together with our nursing team and our doctor, along with our social workers. It ties it together for that holistic approach," Haycraft said, adding that what Ruggles brings to the team aligns with Auburn Crest's motto of, "Choosing to live every moment."

"Everybody wants a legacy to leave behind," Haycraft said. "She’s helping people create that legacy of how they want to be remembered."

Ruggles, a part-time U.S. history instructor at North Idaho College, is a public historian dedicated to collecting and preserving oral histories.

By video recording interviews with those who are near the end of life, Ruggles captures priceless treasures for families to keep forever. This provides some closure for the families, as well as the patients themselves.

"They’re happy they get to have this. They rewatch them all the time," Haycraft said. "You can have closure; that’s what she’s helping people with."

For the patients, to be interviewed by a compassionate, trained professional allows them to recall distant memories, share stories and express themselves in ways they may never have been able to with loved ones.

"Anybody can go and ask questions, but because this is her expertise, she has a degree in it, she has a talent for knowing when to ask a question and what to ask," Haycraft said.

The service also illuminates minds that may be otherwise locked up or fading away.

"That is one of the biggest things we can give to somebody is validation that their story is worth it," Ruggles said. "Until that person is gone, you don't realize what you've truly lost."

This service has been in beta mode for the past year. In that time, Ruggles and Auburn Crest have helped nine families preserve loved ones' legacies.

One legacy belongs to Betty Lundy Evans, who lived to be 100. Before her death in August, Ruggles was honored to conduct an interview with her.

"When I walked into the room, she was hunched over, did not want to talk. She had been closed off," Ruggles said. "Knowing what I had known about her nature and who she was, I said, 'Let's just give it a try.' It took about 20 minutes for her to open up."

Ruggles prepares for these important moments by conducting research and talking with families about meaningful details and personality traits. Evans was a lifelong educator and one of the first to start a hospice program in Idaho, so Ruggles spoke to those aspects of Evans' life.

"We talked for an hour and a half. She was throwing her head back laughing," Ruggles said. "I asked her, 'What do you want to say to Jesus when you meet him?' And she said, 'Oh, I have questions for him!' She got snarky, she got real, contemplating some really big things."

Evans's son, Dr. Steve Brisbois, is an OBGYN with Providence in Spokane who spent six years on the board of Hospice of Spokane. He said he'd never heard of an oral historian providing this service prior to his family's experience.

"It was wonderful to see. I think my mother, at the beginning of the interview, she wasn't engaged, but halfway through it, the teacher side of her came out," Brisbois said. "Because of the process of the interview and the type of questions that were asked and the loving manner in which they were asked, it brought our mother back to life.

"Her wisdom and philosophy of life and her view of how all of us should live our lives just came out. It was amazing to us," he continued. "But we have that record, that recording, and wherever we want, we can sit down and enjoy my mother."

Brisbois's sister and Evans's eldest child, Judy Sanborn of Athol, said the experience was a gift to the kids as well as to their mom.

"We saw all sides of her, and some sides we hadn’t seen before. When she was around all of us, she mostly listened,” Sanborn said. "Mother perked up. I’ve never seen anything like that. She was being heard and she was being seen and that was such a gift.

"They have a lifetime of stories inside of them bottled up in there," she continued. "For someone to say, 'I want to hear you and listen to you,' that’s pretty amazing. I love this concept, I just love it."

As someone with medical and hospice experience, Brisbois said he encourages people to consider having a loved one's oral history recorded, even if they're not in hospice care.

"We’re a pretty spiritual family and always have been. My mother was the rock. Even at 100 years old, my sisters and I would go to her for wisdom," he said. "We’ll always have it. She’s gone; we know we’ll be with her again.

"When I watch that video, she’s still here. It helps to heal the grief if you realize, they’re still here. That's such a gift. A tremendous gift."

Info: www.auburncrest.com or sarajaneruggles.com

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Courtesy photo

Dr. Steve Brisbois kneels next to his mom, Betty Lundy Evans, in this family photo. Evans died last August, but not before contributing her story to their family history using the services of public historian Sara Jane Ruggles and Auburn Crest Hospice. Pictured, from left, front row: Steve's wife Deanna Brisbois, Evans and Steve. Back row, from left: Evans' daughter Judy Sanborn with husband Glenn; Evans' daughter Jan Stuppy with husband Bob; and Evans' daughter Sharyl Williams with husband Gary.

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Ruggles