For Lawrence hospice patient, goodbyes are separated by phone screens and sliding doors

photo by: Mike Spradlin

Joe Spradlin takes a phone call April 1, 2020, from inside his home, where he is in hospice care. His wife, Rita, stands behind him.

Joe Spradlin’s hospital bed was recently moved to his living room. There, sunlight streams in from the sliding door, behind which visitors stand, chat and offer what could be their final goodbye.

In early March, Spradlin, 90, of Lawrence, was admitted to in-home hospice care due to an aggressive form of stage-four prostate cancer. At first, some of his large family was able to gather and be with their dad, grandpa and great-grandpa, known as “Pepa.” But as March progressed, and with it the coronavirus, Spradlin and his wife, Rita, made the difficult decision to restrict their visitors and practice social distancing.

photo by: Contributed Photo

Joe Spradlin, center, was able to see some of his family on March 8, before the coronavirus forced the couple to practice social distancing.

It was hard — “Oh my gosh, yes,” Rita said. They had to tell a grandson who was on his way to see them that he should turn around. And though Spradlin and his wife have numerous visitors stop by their home weekly to have a chat, their social-distancing observance denies the pleasure of a clasp of the hand or kiss on the cheek.

Despite this, Spradlin remains positive.

“It would be a little nicer if we could freely give one another a hug and a kiss on the cheek, but we can tolerate the distance,” he said. “If that was the least of my problems, it would be pretty small.”

Spradlin’s not used to staying put. In an article from 2009, the Journal-World featured the couple for their exercise regimen. At the time, Spradlin was biking 20 to 30 miles a day, and Rita walked anywhere from four to six miles.

photo by: Richard Gwin/Journal-World Photo

In this Journal-World file photo from November of 2009, Joe and Rita Spradlin exhibit their exercise regimen. Joe biked 30 miles per day and wife Rita walked between 4 to 6 miles a day.

The couple have been married over 70 years, but they’ve been together longer than that.

“I decided in the fifth grade that he was the guy I wanted in my life,” Rita said. They met in the fourth grade.

Spradlin said one of the happiest moments of his life was meeting Rita.

“You know, one reason I can find peace in my current life is there isn’t a whole lot of it left. And I know that for Rita and I, 90 years of it has been good,” he said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “Certainly, it’s a good time to take a look at your life and say, ‘How’s it been in general?’ It’s been a good life, and if at the end of it, it isn’t perfect, well, so be it.”

photo by: Contributed Photo

Joe and Rita Spradlin in their home on March 9.

Rita finds comfort in their memories, but, she said, “there’s a lot of heartache in knowing what the final outcome will be.”

Spradlin and Rita live alone and receive visits from nurses with the Visiting Nurses Association and their son, Mike Spradlin, who lives in Lenexa.

Mike said the coronavirus has made the whole situation more stressful.

“You have to think about everything. Where you’ve been, who you’ve touched,” he said. And additionally, “in a time when we need (socialization and friendliness) most, we have to observe social distancing.”

Mike said his parents were always cognizant of and caring toward other people. They often volunteered, and Spradlin raised over $80,000 through Bike MS fundraisers to fight multiple sclerosis, a disease from which his late sister and niece suffered. Now, Mike said the care his parents have shown to others has come full circle.

photo by: Nick Krug/Journal-World Photo

In this Journal-World photo from July of 2007, Joe Spradlin was pictured prior to his anticipated participation in the Eastern Kansas MS 150 Bike Tour that September, a 150 mile fundraiser for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Wednesday afternoon, Bob and Lee Ann Duver stopped by on the sunny day to say hello. They were able to chat with Spradlin and Rita from the outside, remaining behind a table that sits beside the sliding door.

photo by: Mike Spradlin

Bob and Lee Ann Duver, friends of Joe and Rita Spradlin, visited with the Spradlins on April 1. They talked to the Spradlins from outside in order to maintain social distance guidelines.

For those who can’t visit in person, Spradlin said Facetime and Skype do the trick.

“It’s very much as if they were with us,” Spradlin said. “When we pick up the phone and look at their face and hear their chuckles at our sarcasm, why, it’s a great experience.”

When asked about the issues the coronavirus is inflicting on funeral services and burying the dead, Spradlin wasn’t too concerned. He said it’s always been his plan to have his body donated to the anatomy department at the University of Kansas Medical Center and then cremated. He said he just hopes his family finds a time in the future to host a celebration of his life and maybe “drink a little wine for me.”

“Since they won’t have to deal with any corpses, they can have it on the beach or in the mountains or at the Kansas alumni building,” he joked. Both he and Rita graduated from KU, and Spradlin worked there as a professor for 37 years.

Spradlin said he doesn’t have great fears, worries or anxieties about death.

“In fact,” he said, “I look at death as an eternal, dreamless sleep, and who could look at anything better?”

photo by: Mike Spradlin

Joe Spradlin is pictured inside his home on April 1. His hospital bed was moved close to the screened door in the living room so that he can chat with visitors outside while maintaining social distance.


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