GLADWIN – Gladwin resident and U.S. Navy Veteran, William “Bill” O’Brien had his wish come true on Tuesday, April 6 when he boarded a naval ship after decades away. This opportunity would not have been possible for the 91-year-old veteran without the dedication of Teri Rapp, Hospice Liaison for Compassus in West Branch and the hospice staff. 

Bill joined the U.S. Navy in 1947 and served during the Korean War. The navy had paid for his four year degree to become an officer and he shipped out two days after finishing college at Holy Cross. He started as the third deck supervisor of the USS Rockbridge (APA 228). Later, he was an officer over a fleet of the small ships that took marines to shore. After full time duty, Bill served in the reserves for 37 years, and was instrumental in setting up the naval bases in Michigan. 

In giving Bill care one day, hospice staff discovered he always had wanted to see the USS Edson DD-946 ship that is docked at the Saginaw Valley Naval Ship Museum in Bay City. The USS Edson is a similar make to the ships that Bill recalls seeing in his teenage years in Maine. He wanted to get on a ship one more time. 

“We quickly got to work,” Teri said. “I contacted Carla Monteiro, Administrative Assistant, of the Saginaw Valley Naval Ship Museum and told her Bill’s story.”  

According to Teri, Carla used to work for hospice and right away wanted to help do what she could to get Bill on the ship. After Carla and Teri met, they went through the logistics of whether it could be a safe and doable adventure for the veteran. The pair worked together to make a plan and put it to action.

Teri made contact with MidMichigan Limousine Services in Midland who, upon hearing Bill’s story, offered to donate a limo to take him to the ship. The limo picked up Bill and his wife, Ila Mae, at their home in Gladwin, and they rode in style to Bay City. Two of the hospice nurses, Sharon McCauley and Tina Bearss, along with Teri and Bill’s son, Levi accompanied Bill and Ila Mae on their tour. Multiple safety processes were in place including many protocols dealing with the COVID-19 virus. 

Teri recalls one of the biggest challenges in her and Carla’s planning was finding a way to make the gangway accessible for Bill. It seemed to have worked out well because for Bill, this was one of the more memorable parts of the trip. 

“It was very exciting because there was a very long gangway that we went across and I could see the water on either side and the ship in front of me,” Bill said. “When we reached the ship, I asked for permission to come aboard, and it was granted. Then I was shown around by some of the most wonderful people I’ve ever met.”

A local restaurant, Coonan’s Irish Hub, kindly donated a wonderful lunch that was enjoyed onboard. After lunch, there was a special veteran pinning ceremony, thanking Bill and recognizing him for his service. During the ceremony, he received a certificate, a star that was cut from a flag that flew and a flag pin. Many local war veterans were in attendance during the ceremony. 

“It was a beautiful thing,” Bill said. “I was told that I was going to die at any time, and that it will be all at once. I would always talk about how the last thing I wanted to do was to visit a navy ship, it had been a dream of mine. They didn’t have to do this for me, but they carried on with it anyway.”

“In this time of uncertainty, of crisis, of depression and irritability, I think this story has many wonderful components,” Teri said. “So many people came together and immediately wanted to help this veteran fulfill his last wish. I never asked anyone to do this for free, I only explained Bill’s story and people and businesses alike wanted to donate what they could.” 

Bill experienced an amazing day, and was recognized for his service onboard a naval destroyer. His adventure also reinforces that hospice care isn’t about dying, it’s about living. 

“It’s about living your best life every day, focusing on things we can do and not things we can’t,” Teri said. “Often times people are afraid when you mention the word ‘hospice,’ and I can’t emphasize enough that hospice is not giving up hope. Rather it is changing the focus of your life goals when cure is no longer an option and now your goal is to manage your symptoms.”

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