‘I wanted each day’ Chaplain comes to terms with cancer and her own end of life

Dr. Angus Baker shares a laugh with his friend, Capers Limehouse, during a visit to her home in April. Limehouse, who worked with Baker on the Roper-St. Francis Palliative Care team, asked him to be her doctor after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer soon after retiring at the end of last year. Limehouse has since passed away.

After spending several years teaching college English courses and then later consoling patients and their families as a chaplain for Roper St. Francis, it was time for The Rev. Capers Limehouse to retire. An ambitious spirit, she wanted to spend more time writing poetry and finishing up her graduate school studies.

“I’m 65 and I just had a sense that there were other things I wanted to do,” she said. “It didn’t turn out that way.”

One month after her retirement on Dec. 31, 2014, Limehouse received the news she’d helped so many others come to terms with throughout her years as a hospital chaplain. She’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

She died less than six months later, on May 22.

Limehouse’s final days were mostly spent at home with her husband, Dr. Walter Limehouse, and with friends and family making their final visits. Her cancer weakened her body, so even writing her beloved poetry became exhausting.

“I am not writing right now. I don’t have the energy,” she said during an interview about a month before she passed away. “One thing I am personally finding about cancer is that it absorbs a lot of energy. It’s sort of like a parasite.”

During that recent visit to her home in West Ashley, their housekeeper showed up. “She’s part of the very large team that keeps me from losing my mind,” Limehouse joked.

Limehouse knew she didn’t have much time left. Her advanced pancreatic cancer was diagnosed as terminal and she had come to terms with her prognosis.

Immediately after her diagnosis, Limehouse called her former colleague at Roper St. Francis, Dr. Angus Baker, a palliative medicine physician. Limehouse spent nine years working as a chaplain for Roper St. Francis and worked closely with Dr. Baker, who still recalls their first meeting about 15 years ago.

“We had both been paged to meet with a dying patient, and ended up on the same elevator. I noticed that this person in the elevator had a special presence around her,” he said. “Then we got off, and both headed to the same room, not knowing that we were seeing the same patient.”

As members of the Palliative Care team, the two worked to treat and comfort hundreds of patients going through end-of-life care, so it seemed only natural to ask Dr. Baker to be her doctor.

“I knew they would not pressure me into doing something I didn’t want to do,” she said. “The kind of cancer I have was not going to respond to surgery or chemicals.”

Limehouse had some radiation, but for the most part, her priority was her quality of life, which is the focus of Palliative Care. Palliative care includes expert medical care, symptom and pain management, as well as emotional and spiritual support tailored to the patient and his or her family’s needs and wishes. It consists of four disciplines, including physicians, nurse practitioners, social workers and chaplains, which deal with symptom management such as pain, anxiety and depression and shortness of breath. The team usually also discusses the prognosis with patients and their families.

“While many might think we discuss ‘giving up’ with patients, we feel strongly it is more giving patients and families the information about treatments, that others don’t have as much time to discuss, and to make sure patients and families know they have the option and right to choose for themselves the types of care they want,” said Dr. Baker.

Limehouse had decided she wanted to pursue the Palliative Care option.

“I wanted each day. I didn’t want each day to be sick in bed. Being present was more important to me than being alive another day,” she said. “Palliative care is not doing nothing. Palliative care is treating symptoms aggressively so the focus becomes on symptom control but not on cure. I’m not looking for a cure. I am looking to be alert and to get time. I have three children and a husband and grandchildren and I want to be alert and present for them.”

Before becoming a chaplain at Roper, Limehouse worked as a Call Chaplain at Trident Healthcare System and a Pool Chaplain at the Medical University hospital. She also was ordained a vocational deacon in September 2005.

“There’s an intensity and spirituality in chaplaincy,” said Limehouse. “You get driven internally in a way you would not find otherwise.”

Her experience as a chaplain working with patients who were dealing with their own impending death prepared her in some ways for her own fate. Although Limehouse said each patient was different and she, as a chaplain, would console them accordingly.

“It all depended on the person. My basic sort of underlying theology is that you are loved. Period. Sometimes people feel cancer is a punishment, that somehow God doesn’t love them anymore,” she said. “I would say to them that deeply I believe God loves them. He loves them profoundly.”

Limehouse referred to her time with patients and families a very complex set of interactions that were rarely the same.

“I’ve read children’s books to children because they didn’t have a babysitter and had to bring the children with them. I’ve sat there and drawn with children. Each meeting develops in a particular way,” she said. “You had to be willing to adapt.”

Limehouse would work to help patients and their families accept the prognosis, which came with its frustrations.

“Sometimes it can be very painful. You want them to understand. And you really want them to grieve,” she said. “You want people to be able to accept their own grief and come together as a family and work together because the patient’s going to die. There’s no question, usually by that point. How that family confronts that death really does have strong implications on how they will grieve.”

Even in her sickness, Limehouse said she tried to help her own friends and family accept the loss they would feel by her death. After a life of love, passion and service to God and humanity, Limehouse said she had come to terms with her mortality and was ready for the future, whatever it may hold.

“I’m kind of counting on God being on the other side,” she said. “I figure God is there and I’m moving closer and closer to God or there’s nothing, in which case, it’s going to be really quiet.”