Humans of Hyattsville: Former circus performer and ballerina finds new life caring for the dying
By Lindsay Myers
Janice Lee, a resident of University Park, encounters death more often than most. As a hospice nurse, she cares for many of her patients in their last moments, easing their transition to death and helping their family members accept the dying process. In the last month, under lockdown restrictions, Janice has had more patients die in rapid succession than any other period during her 14 years providing hospice care. Her nursing agency reports that the percentage of patients dying within seven days of entering hospice has leapt from 20%-35% since the beginning of pandemic response measures.
It is difficult to know whether these patients are dying because of COVID-19, the natural progression of age/disease, or from the interruption to their daily routines. Most of Janice’s patients have dementia and rely on family members and activities for stimulation. Under lockdown, their day-to-day lives have completely changed. They’re confined to their rooms for most of the day, family visits are prohibited, and the daily rhythms of the nursing home — group activities, time outside, doctors visits, meals with friends — have vanished or been radically changed.
When Janice became a hospice nurse in 2006, it marked a significant shift in her professional career. Before entering nursing school, Janice spent over 25 years working as a performer. In her 20s, she was living in New York and dancing as a professional ballerina. After suffering a serious injury to her foot and back, she saw an ad for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and decided to audition. The circus was in Florida that year, and Janice was tired of New York winters.
“When I saw the circus was going to be in Florida I said, ‘Florida! That’s where I want to go!’” Janice laughed. “It was just an exciting kind of thing. A whacko, out of the blue thing. I ran away and joined the circus! It’s a very unique story.”
While working for Ringling Bros. Janice met her future husband, Larry. He was a recent graduate of clown college and had a special knack for juggling and acrobatics.
As circus performers, Janice danced and performed an aerial ballet routine while Larry juggled and clowned. They became trapeze fanatics, spending their free time watching the other artists and working out on the rigging. They erected a small trapeze in their backyard (“It was the biggest swing set in the neighborhood!”) where they could practice tricks and keep their calluses hardened. They eventually started their own troupe called Circus Werks with another married circus couple and performed together at private events, all the major amusement parks in central Florida, and even on a cruise ship.
But as Larry and Janice aged, Janice knew she would eventually have to stop performing.
“It’s hard to work in the parks when you’re older. At the parks you’re doing at least five shows a day and I kept getting injured. And, you know, when you’re 42 standing next to an 18 year old, it just shows.”
Larry, originally from California, by this time had transitioned more into stunt work. He landed work as a stuntman and a stunt coordinator in the movie studios back home and the pair left the circus world for good. Janice was in her 40s and was faced with the question of what to do next. She began reflecting on her life’s work up to that point.
“My previous career was always very self centered,” said Lee. “You know, if you’re a performer, you’re always looking at yourself: How can I make this better? How can I look better? How can I make my body better? … and I was kind of having a conversion experience of looking at my life and saying, ‘Everything I have done … it seems to be very egotistical.’ It was always looking at ‘self,’ and I just felt like I needed to do something for ‘the other,’ for someone else. I needed to stop focusing on myself,” she said.
Then 9/11 happened.
“When [9/11] happened, it shined a light in my life. I said, ‘Now I’m changing that. I’m doing something else.’ ‘God, make my life a sacrifice for you and others,’ was my prayer. And I really felt like that was a defining moment where everything changed.”
Janice began visiting elderly shut-ins once a week through a program at her local church. She found that she cherished the time spent talking with them and serving them in little ways. Within a year, all five of the people with whom she regularly visited had died. The experience helped her realize that geriatric nursing and hospice care were a natural fit.
Janice described the struggle of entering nursing school in her late 40s, with a family in tow, and literally no traditional work experience under her belt.
“I was a physical person. I didn’t have any computer skills, I didn’t have any knowledge, I was older. I was scared out of my mind, but I didn’t know what else I was supposed to do. It just seemed that [nursing school] was what was opening up. And I really do believe that was God’s plan for me, and if he had told me right from the start that he wanted me to be a nurse, I would have been like, ‘No way! There’s no way I can do that!’ But it all just opened up slowly, and I accepted it one step at a time until I was able to do it,” she said.
Recently, Janice was on the phone with the wife of a patient who had just died. Lee had called to offer condolences, and the man’s wife confided in Janice that she felt guilty that she couldn’t be at her husband’s side while he drew his last breaths. Under the lockdown, and immunocompromised herself, the best she could do was FaceTime her husband during his last moments.
Janice understood the difficulty of the situation. The unnaturalness. But she told the woman what she tells all the family members who miss the moment of death of their loved ones: “You were there when it counted. You were there all the way through. That was the hard part, and you were there when they needed you most.”