Bike-riding traveler wants to shift focus of end-of-life care

A man on a bicycle tour of Pennsylvania made a brief stop in Rocky Grove Wednesday afternoon to speak to staff and volunteers at the Collins House hospice care facility.

Ric Baxter, 68, of Bethlehem, has been a national leader in hospice and palliative care and has worked at St. Luke’s Hospital in Bethlehem for 14 years.

Baxter is currently on a bicycle tour across Pennsylvania with official stops in 23 cities and a cumulative total of 1,000 miles, give or take.

“I didn’t want to have a situation where something happened where I couldn’t work anymore, or worse, be in a situation where someone had to tell me ‘you know, maybe it’s time for you to go.’ I thought, maybe, there was some kind of transition,” Baxter said.

Baxter isn’t just cycling the state for fun or as a way to stay in shape .He is also spreading the word about what he and other end-of-life careworkers do.

“I’ve been called Dr. Death, Dr. Morphine, Dr. Methadone … when people ask what you do they say ‘oh, that must be so hard,’ you can’t just say, ‘nah, you know I actually really like what I do,'” he said.

Instead, Baxter urged the assembled care providers who gathered in the recently finished garage of the house to think of the life that can be provided to individuals who arrive at the home.

“Be in the moment. This is probably the most vulnerable and intimate time in their life and we get to be there, so bring your whole self,” Baxter said.

Baxter uses Buddhist traditions during his programs, including the chiming of the tingsha, a set of small finger cymbals that originate from Tibet. Baxter said the Buddhist tradition of the cymbals provides a last chance for a soul to find its way to enlightenment.

Baxter said he and his staff utilize the cymbals at St. Luke’s as a way to quietly recognize the passing of a life, as well as to signal when the group will discuss topics pertaining to bereavement.

Baxter said his trek across the state is designed to “shift the focus” of end-of-life care away from the sympathetic outlook of “oh, that must be hard” or an opinion of denial that such stages of life exist to what he said is the reality of hospice and palliative care – life.

“An old guy riding around the state of Pennsylvania has nothing to do with end-of-life care … but if riding 1,000 miles isn’t a sign of life, I don’t know what is,” Baxter said.

Baxter had covered 485 miles and an elevation of 20,000 feet when he arrived in Rocky Grove.

“We tell our patients all the time, don’t wait. I thought I’d listen to my own advice,” he said.