7 powerful photographs of terminally ill patients living out their final wishes

Before 54-year-old Mario passed away, he had one special goodbye he needed to say ... to his favorite giraffe.

Mario had worked as a maintenance man at the Rotterdam zoo in the Netherlands for over 25 years. After his shifts, he loved to visit and help care for the animals, including the giraffes.

As Mario's fight against terminal brain cancer came to an end, all he wanted to do was visit the zoo one last time. He wanted to say goodbye to his colleagues — and maybe share a final moment with some of his furry friends.


Thanks to one incredible organization, Mario got his wish.

"To say goodbye to the animals." All photos by the Ambulance Wish Foundation, used with permission.

The Ambulance Wish Foundation, a Dutch nonprofit, helps people like Mario experience one final request.

It's a lot like Make-A-Wish, only it's not just for kids.

In 2006, Kees Veldboer, who was an ambulance driver at the time, was moving a patient from one hospital to another. The patient was a terminally ill man who had spent three straight months confined to a hospital bed. During the trip from one hospital to the other, the patient told Veldboer that he wanted to see the Vlaardingen canal one last time. He wanted to sit in the sun and wind and smell the water again before going back inside.

"To see the ocean again."

Veldboer made the patient's last wish happen, and as tears of joy streamed down the man's face, Veldboer knew he had tapped into a powerful way to bring peace to people in their final days.

Soon after, the Ambulance Wish Foundation was born.

Based in the Netherlands, Veldboer's organization scoffs at the logistical hurdles of transporting terminally ill patients who need high levels of care and, often, lots of medical equipment. The Ambulance Wish Foundation employs a fleet of custom-built ambulances and always has highly trained medical staff on hand for emergencies.

"To visit my best friend's grave."

Their message? Positive end-of-life experiences are far too important to pass up.

Today, the AWF has over 230 volunteers and has fulfilled nearly 7,000 wishes.

Even more beautiful than the work this organization does, though, are the things its patients are asking for.

"To enjoy a delicious ice cream cone."

The Make-A-Wish Foundation specializes in granting wishes for children with life-threatening illnesses, many of whom have barely begun to live. The children's wishes run the gamut, from starring in a music video to a day as a hero soldier in the Army.

But what does Veldboer do for older folks who have already experienced so much? What do their wishes look like?

Mostly, it's the little things they cherish, like seeing their home one last time or spending a few hours just looking at something beautiful.

Veldboer, in an interview with the BBC, describes one woman who had not been home for six months. When they brought her into her living room on a stretcher, she hoisted herself up and stayed there for hours, doing nothing but looking around — likely replaying an entire lifetime worth of memories — before quietly asking them to take her away.

Another patient simply wanted to see her favorite Rembrandt painting again.

"To see my favorite painting one last time."

And another just wanted to spend an afternoon watching dolphins play.

"To watch the dolphins play."

On and on the wishes go — about four of them fulfilled every day. People who just want to see their grandchild for the first time, or stand on the beach again before they can't anymore.

Turns out that life's simplest pleasures just might be its most meaningful.

Sometimes it feels like there's never enough time. Not in a day. Not in a year. Not in a life.

"To attend my granddaughter's wedding."

But maybe it's better to cherish what we have rather than spend so much time thinking about all the things we haven't done yet.

Maybe the things we remember at the end aren't the time we went skydiving or the time we hiked across Europe. When our time is up, maybe what we'll remember most is more mundane — the tacky wallpaper in the house we grew up in, a sunny day spent on the water, or those little everyday moments spent with the people we love the most.

Whatever it is, it's comforting to know there are people out there who want our last memories of this place to be good ones.

I can't think of a more wonderful job.

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Capital One

Brian Olesen never imagined he would end up homeless.

The former U.S. Air Force medic had led a full and active life, complete with a long career in the medical field, a 20-year marriage, and a love of anything aquatic. But after hip surgery and chronic back pain left him disabled in 2013, he lost his ability to work. Due to changes in eligibility requirements, he couldn't qualify for federal veteran housing programs. His back issues were difficult to prove medically, so he didn't qualify for disability. Though he'd worked his whole life, having no income for five years took its toll. He got evicted from a couple of apartments and found himself living on the streets.

But in 2018, two things completely turned Olesen's life around. He was able to both qualify for disability and to move into an affordable housing community in Miami's Goulds neighborhood called Karis Village.

When people think of affordable housing, they don't usually picture a place like Karis Village. The 88-unit development is brand new, and built with an attention to design that is not always expected for developments that serve as home to people on limited incomes. The apartments have tile floors, marble countertops, and all new appliances and furniture, and the grounds are beautiful and well-kept, with a playground and common areas for residents to gather.

Brian Olesen in his kitchen at Karis VillageCapital One

Karis Village isn't just a housing development; it's a home and a community. Half of the units are set aside for veterans who have experienced homelessness, like Olesen. The other half are largely occupied by single-parent families.

"To me, this building was just a gift," says Olesen. "All of the different parties that got together to put this building together… making half the building available to veterans. We've got no place to go."

Addressing veteran homelessness was one of the goals of Karis Village, which was built through a partnership that included Carrfour Supportive Housing — a mission-driven, not-for-profit affordable housing organization in southern Florida — and Capital One's Community Finance team. More than just an affordable place to live, the community has full-time staff on hand to help coordinate services—from addiction recovery programs to transportation options to job search and placement. Also included are peer counselors who provide emotional and psychological support for residents.

Karis Village, an affordable housing community in Miami, Florida.Capital One

Carrfour President and CEO Stephanie Berman says the core function of the services team on site is to build a supportive community.

"Often when you think of folks leaving homelessness and coming into housing, you think of shelters or some kind of traditional housing," she says. "You don't really think about a community, and that's really what we build and what we operate. What we're really striving to create is community. We find that our families thrive when you create a sense of community."

The intention to create a supportive community at Karis Village was a priority from the get go. Fabian Ramirez, a Capital Officer on Capital One's Community Finance team, says the bank did a listening tour in southern Florida to explore community development and affordable housing options in the area and to hear what was most needed. After deciding to partner with Carrfour, the bank provided not only an $8 million construction loan and a $25 million low income housing tax credit (LIHTC) investment to help build Karis Village, but it also kicked in a $250,000 social purpose grant to help fund the social support services that would be put in place for residents.

"It's not just all about providing the brick and mortar," says Ramirez. "It's about being able to contribute to the sustainability of the development and of the lives of the people who move into the building."


Capital One

Olesen says he and his fellow residents benefit greatly from the network of support services offered in the building. He says a counselor comes to meet with him once a month, sometimes right in his apartment. He also gets help maintaining a connection with the Veteran Affairs office. Other services include social workers and counselors for drug addiction and alcoholism.

Olesen loves being around other veterans, and he says hearing the sound of children playing keeps the community lively. He says anywhere else he could afford to live on disability wouldn't be nearly as nice and would likely involve shared kitchens and bathrooms and neighborhoods you wouldn't want to go out in at night.

If it weren't for Karis Village, Olesen says he doesn't know where he would be today: "I had nowhere to go and this is a safe, beautiful place to spend my retirement."

"I don't think they could have done a much better job of putting this place together and supplying us with what we need," he says. "I have so much appreciation for the ability to have a place to live. And then you add to that that it's beautiful and completely furnished and you didn't need to bring anything—I don't know what more you could ask for."

Karis Village and another development for veterans built the same year enabled the neighborhood of Goulds to meet the requirements set forth by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to declare an end to veteran homelessness in the area.

Ending veteran homelessness altogether is a complex task, but communities like Karis Village show how it can be done—and done well. When government agencies, non-profit organizations, and corporate funding programs come together to solve big problems, big solutions can be built and maintained.

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