Norma Henderson had a long, adventurous life filled with great memories.
Born in 1931 in Wessington Springs, she grew up wishing to be a pilot, and even asked her parents to allow her to take flying lessons. They said this wasn’t a proper activity for a girl, so Norma concocted other adventures. After high school, she moved to San Diego, where she worked for an advertising and public relations firm. She took solo trips to Mexico and learned to sail. Later, an old beau from high school, a young lawyer named Frank Henderson, persuaded her to return to South Dakota and be his wife.
Together they had eight children. Frank practiced law, served as a Circuit Court judge and later served on the South Dakota Supreme Court. For a number of years they ranched and operated Pine Rest Cabins near Hill City. Frank passed away in 2012, and Norma remained at the ranch, which she loved.
John Henderson, Norma and Frank’s son, moved back home to take over the ranching operations and, as her health declined, cared for Norma. He reports that one day toward the end of her driving career, she “sneaked out” to take a helicopter ride around the Hills. Her passion for flight remained strong.
A few years later, by May 2022, Norma was gravely ill, receiving home care from Monument Health Home+ Hospice. During conversations with one of her nurses, Elizabeth, she confided that one item remained on her bucket list. She wanted to fly in a hot-air balloon.
“The whole Hospice team sat down and said, ‘How can we make this happen?’ and everybody worked together,” said Michelle Sieveke, Director of Monument Health Home+ Home Health and Hospice.
Elizabeth, along with John, his sister Andrea Henderson and the Hospice staff hatched a surprise balloon flight for Norma.
On May 15, 2022, John and Andrea took Norma for an early afternoon drive in the country. They ended up at Southern Hills Golf Course in Hot Springs, where massive, colorful balloons were being readied for flight. Even then, Norma didn’t realize she would soon be boarding one of the balloons.
“When she found out she was going in the balloon, she was one happy little white-haired lady,” John said.
With help from her family and the hospice nurse, Norma scrambled into the balloon’s basket. She was joined by family friend Kristin Donnan – the only other one in the group who wasn’t afraid of heights. The afternoon was one of the Southern Hills Ballooning Association’s tethered events, so the balloon floated only several stories high during the flight. That didn’t matter to Norma – her smile grew wider with each foot the balloon ascended.
Later, Kristin compiled the photos from that day into a book, which the family signed and gave to the Hospice staff. “We just want to express our deep gratitude to the Hospice program,” John said. Norma passed away in October 2022.
Keeping the focus on living
While a balloon flight was a first for the Hospice staff, Director Michelle Sieveke said it’s not uncommon for patients to seek one last experience during care. When possible, the nurses and caregivers do everything they can to fulfill those requests. They’ve staged art shows, hosted baby showers and arranged a visit from a horse on the Hospice House patio. They even brought in an Elvis impersonator.
Other notable moments include:
- A few years ago, one hospice patient wanted to take a final motorcycle ride. With the help of Black Hills Harley-Davidson, the Hospice crew loaded her into a sidecar – they called it a bucket – and took her for a ride while blasting “Born to Be Wild" on the motorcycle’s speakers.
- Another patient, who was at the Hospice House in Rapid City, wanted to share one final anniversary with her husband. A nurse brought in her best china from home, the volunteer coordinator made them a Key lime pie, and the staff decorated the patient’s room. The couple shared a special candlelight dinner with soft music.
- One woman was completing her online doctorate program from a university, Hospice Nurse Manager Lisa Davis recalled. Hospice staff worked with the university to coordinate a ceremony, complete with cap-and-gown and an iPad video connection, so she could fulfill that dream.
“I feel like our staff really tries to capture things that are important to patients. They look at the individual and try to capture those moments,” Michelle said. “It really reflects what hospice is all about. We’re not focusing on dying; we’re trying to focus on living.”
Written by Dan Daly