Randy's Grace

I wish I’d met Deacon Randy LeBlanc. He loved football and he loved to watch the New Orleans Saints. He loved to watch cooking shows and television, and when he wasn’t working as a general manager for Atlas Feed Mills in Breaux Bridge or as a deacon for St. Peter Roman Catholic Church in Carencro, he preferred to stay at home and spend time with his family. We were neighbors, too; he lived one street over from me in Carencro, and we probably crossed paths at places like Mouton’s Food Mart or Don’s Specialty Meats without ever knowing it.

Shortly after the new year, Randy and I were scheduled to meet on two different occasions. On the eve of our first planned introduction, he fell and hurt his leg and had to go to the hospital. The second time, he was slipping in and out of consciousness due to the morphine he was taking to manage the pain. I didn’t feel right about meeting him under those circumstances and didn’t want to take him away from time with his wife, children and friends.

Randy passed away on Feb. 23 from eccrine carcinoma, a rare cancer of the sweat glands. He was 50 years old.

In the months before he died, he and his wife Sonya agreed to share the last chapter of his life with Independent Weekly photographer Terri Fensel. Randy is one of the 18,000-plus individuals since 1983 who have been cared for by Hospice of Acadiana, the local non-profit organization that provides help and support for patients and families facing terminal illnesses. (There are other hospice organizations in Lafayette; Hospice of Acadiana is the oldest, and the only nonprofit.)

“Dying is not an easy thing to understand,” says Sonya LeBlanc, sitting in her living room the week after losing her husband. “The people who are dying struggle, and the people losing that person are struggling. Any time people needed help, Randy was there, and if sharing his experience would help others, he wanted to do it.”

And because dying is not an easy thing to understand, and often even more difficult to talk about — there are many misperceptions about hospice.

“A lot of people think hospice only benefits you for the last days of your life,” says Toni Rios, director of community education for Hospice of Acadiana. “You become a hospice-eligible patient when you have six months left or less. The earlier someone can get into hospice care, the more we can manage pain and symptoms and the fuller their life can be.”

Hospice of Acadiana has approximately 120 staff members, including 20 volunteer physicians. In addition to social workers, chaplains, bereavement counselors, LPNs, RNs and nurses’ aides, the organization also benefits from the selfless efforts of more than 5,000 auxiliary volunteers. Its core employees and vast network of supporters and volunteers work with patients and their families to ease the challenges and difficulties they face. Their mission boils down to answering a simple question: What can we do to help?

“We’ll say the rosary with you, write letters for you, go get groceries, whatever is needed,” says Rios. “We even put on a wedding for one woman who wanted to be married before she died.”

There is only one prerequisite to qualify for Hospice of Acadiana care: a physician’s referral. Beyond that, the agency cares for patients of all races, ages and faiths. It also has its HeartPrints program, which assists children with life-threatening illnesses. “A lot of times, the [child] may not be terminal, but we do everything we can to help them,” says Rios. “And everything we do is free of charge.”

Hospice of Acadiana is primarily funded through Medicare, Medicaid and private insurers, but approximately 6 percent of its patients annually are indigent and don’t have insurance. “Everyone deserves care,” says Rios. “How do you turn away somebody at the end of their life? We provide services without regard to a patient’s financial situation.”

The cost of caring for indigent patients is offset by community donations and grant-writing. With the ever-increasing price of medication, Rios is applying for more grants to try and mitigate those costs.

Everything Hospice of Acadiana does is in service of its core mission: giving terminally ill patients the support they need to spend the final segment of their life at home, not in a hospital. And that’s what Randy LeBlanc had. He was able to rest on his favorite sofa, ask Sonya for his favorite Bibles, and play with his dog Bailey.

It was hard to get the call that Randy had died, knowing I was never able to meet him. But with the stories Sonya shared with me, and through Terri Fensel’s photos, I feel like I knew Randy LeBlanc — and what a fine man he was. “Randy taught a lot of people a lot about dying,” says Sonya.

For that, I am grateful.