WATERTOWN — As she sat in the crowd filled with thousands of students and spectators waiting for her name to be called at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s graduation ceremony last December, Kalee Lafler couldn’t help but think of her mother.

Kalee also was thinking about her mom when she graduated from Watertown High School in 2014. When holidays and birthdays come and go on the calendar, her mother Kathy never is far from her mind. Some days can be harder than others, especially Mother’s Day and Christmas, but not a day goes by when Kalee doesn’t think of her mom at some point.

Kathy always had been there for her youngest daughter, especially during the significant milestones in her life.

“My mom was lying in a hospital bed in our living room, coming in and out of sleep, but I ran out to get the mail and she was able to watch me open the letter and see the look on my face as I found out I was accepted into college,” said Lafler. “That was the first time I had seen her smile in days.”

Kathy Lafler passed away on Dec. 17, 2013, after a 10-year battle with cancer at age 51. That is a date that Kalee won’t ever forget.

“I think I've accepted the fact that the pain will never ever go away,” Lafler said. “There's a connection that you have from your mom and when you lose that you lose a piece of yourself. But I know that with time it stings a little bit less.”

Just a few months before Kathy’s death, the Lafler family had received the bad news from doctors that Kathy’s cancer had spread to her bones and she wouldn’t be getting any better.

“I can still remember the feeling of the unknown and how fearful we all were after we were told ‘there is nothing we can do anymore,’” Lafler said.

Ultimately, the family decided they wanted Rainbow Hospice Care to come into their home and care for Kathy, and help keep her comfortable during the time she had left.

Back in 2013, Angie Zastrow was part of Kathy’s patient care team as an RN case manager. In that role, she helped manage Kathy’s pain and symptoms. Angie had been working as a home hospice nurse since 2006 before becoming the manager at Rainbow Hospice Care Inpatient Center in 2014.

Angie and the rest of the Rainbow team always were communicating with each other and did their best to prepare the Lafler family for the days ahead. With time not on their side, Angie recommended that the family have an early Christmas.

“When you watch your mom fight a disease for so long and are by her side as her cheerleader, it’s hard to accept and understand that the fighting is over,” said Zastrow. “We always meet families where they are. They deserve the direct conversation so they don’t lose out on opportunities to enjoy holidays together or special events.”

But preparing for life without her mother was overwhelming. One day when Kalee was in her bedroom it began to sink in that her life was about to change. Her mom was going to miss her first day of college and wouldn’t be there for her every day anymore, and would miss some of the most important times in her life.

Years of memories were being taken away from Kalee and there was nothing she could do about that.

“I was sitting on the couch and I just curled up in the fetal position, and Angie just held me,” Lafler said. “She cried and I cried. We were both wiping each other’s tears away.”

“It really put it into perspective even for me at that time, that her life would never be the same again,” Zastrow said. “Sometimes you just sit quietly and hold a person’s hand. She was able to have her moment and grieve, and then you could feel what a difference that made.”

Kathy passed away at her home eight days before Christmas with her family by her side. She left behind several friends and family members, including her husband Mike, her daughters Kara and Kalee, and two grandchildren.

Thankfully, the family was able to have an early Christmas and create a lasting memory that they could remember forever. Kathy was gone but the grief remained.

Kalee and her family were able to call Rainbow Hospice Care when they needed to talk. The Rainbow Hospice Care bereavement program is available to families for 13 months following the death of a loved one. It’s just one small link in the entire chain at Rainbow Hospice Care that was there for the Laflers.

“I knew they would be there for me and my entire family,” Lafler said. “I remember even coming up to Rainbow (the Inpatient Center) and just saying ‘hey, I need to talk to somebody.’ And they were there for me immediately and had someone that I could meet with.”

As life continued around her, Kalee’s life eventually had to go on as well, without her mom by her side. Kalee graduated high school and went off to college where a career in hospice was the furthest thing from her mind.

“I remember thinking I would never go into that field,” Lafler said. “I was kind of afraid of it because I thought I’d be thinking too much about my mom.”

Four and a half years later, Kalee received her bachelor’s degree in social work from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She also worked as an intern throughout college in the social services department at Marquardt Village.

Once she moved from the nursing home side of her internship into hospice, her perspective began to change.

“After my first day I thought this feels right,” Lafler said. “This is me. Every little piece about this makes sense.”

In February 2019, Kalee accepted a job as the hospice admissions social worker at Rainbow. Now Kalee often is the first face a loved one and their family members see during the admissions process.

After receiving a referral from the admissions team intake nurse, Kalee is sent either to an assisted living facility, nursing home, hospital or someone’s home. She gathers information from the patient and their family about what they have been going through, learns what their goals are and explains what Rainbow Hospice Care can do for them.

She then communicates with the admissions team to decide what plan of care is needed to carry out those wishes and goals. On any given day Kalee also completes any necessary paperwork with the patient and family, puts that data into that patient’s electronic medical record, orders any equipment, and then it’s on to the next admission.

Every day is a new day and opportunity for her to care for someone else, and help support patients and families going through arguably the most difficult phase of their life.

“Ever since I started working here it’s made me feel so much stronger,” Lafler said. “When you’re working day-to-day and helping out these vulnerable people, you’re so focused on thinking about them, you’re not thinking about yourself. Remembering that I need to be another person’s strength helps me deal with the emotions that come with that territory.”

Kalee knows all too well what that feeling is like when a family first comes on to hospice.

“I didn’t know much about hospice when we signed up,” Lafler said. “Most people know this means they’re dying. But I quickly learned with Rainbow that it’s not just about that. It’s about making your life better day-to-day, even if that means it’s just a little better.”

Even though her college experience and internship training certainly helped, watching her mother go through her own end-of-life journey proved to be just as valuable in her position.

“When mom was on hospice, Rainbow showed me that life doesn’t stop for anyone, but it’s okay,” Lafler said. “If I can help the people I’m meeting with feel a little bit better, that’s how I know that I’ve done a good job and that really matters to me.”

After Kathy passed away, Kalee and Angie didn’t think their paths ever would cross again. They both went their separate ways.

But once Kalee joined Rainbow in February, they became co-workers. Eventually, their roles were reversed. Angie’s brother-in-law, Donovan Zastrow passed away this July, also after a battle with cancer, and also after being served by the Rainbow Hospice Care team.

Kalee now was the one providing compassion and comforting words to the Zastrow family during the admission process and was there for Angie when she needed to let her emotions out.

“I realize the full circle our work has the power to make,” Lafler said. “I didn't come to terms with that effect until we were standing in Angie’s driveway, and she looked me in the eyes and gave me a genuine "thank you." I never thought I would be the one giving the gift of hospice.”

“As the hospice nurse, you are their rock,” Zastrow said. “You are the one they reach out to for advice and a shoulder to cry on. The teacher became the student, so to speak.

“I was the weak, fragile family member, but it was so easy to go to Kalee and cry like she did to me,” she added. “It was also a very proud moment for me because I look at her and see that teenager, sitting on the floor of the bedroom crying as I hugged her, and I now see the amazing, strong, steadfast and comforting woman she has become.”

It’s not that surprising that Angie and the Rainbow Hospice Care team helped steer Kalee toward the hospice profession, especially to a job at Rainbow thanks to the loving care and compassion they showed for her mom.

There also is no denying the lasting impact that Kathy had on her daughter, Kalee. Kathy worked as a Certified Nursing Assistant for 22 years at Bethesda Lutheran Communities and with Home Health Services, and at the former Zinzendorf Hall (now Park Ridge) at Marquardt Village.

She always wanted her daughter to have a career in healthcare. Now Kalee is leaving her own mark on Rainbow Hospice Care patients and families she meets every day.

“My mom took care of people for a living, those who were dying or sick,” Lafler said. “So that was kind of already programmed into me. I think she would be very happy and proud that I’m now helping people at the end of life.”

“Everyone comes into your life for a reason, and now I know what the reason was and why I was the hospice nurse caring for her mom,” Zastrow said. “It’s so she could care for me and my family someday.”

A lot has happened since Kalee lost her mom almost six years ago. She would like nothing more than to reach out and hug her or just see her face again and to hear her voice.

But she’s grateful for all the time she did have with her mom and credits her for helping her find a career path that can be challenging, but also is very rewarding.

“My mom and the experience we had together runs through me and the energy that I give to patients and families,” Lafler said. “When I step back and take a look at myself and realize what I was able to do with my grief, it makes me happy that I can help other people deal with that same pain. I can show people that life does continue and it’s okay. Things can get better.”

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