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It was the most important thing I would do that week.

One morning, I walked around the hospital introducing myself to patients. I stopped by the room of a woman in her late 80s with dementia. Her ability to swallow — to ensure that food and water and saliva reached her stomach and not her lungs — had grown tenuous: This was her third bout of pneumonia in as many months. After restricting her diet for fear of worsening her breathing, her family had now decided that she should enjoy what she could in the time she had left.

“Dry,” she whispered.

“Sorry?” I asked, leaning closer.

“My mouth. So dry,” she repeated. I noticed her cracked lips, the miscellaneous debris crusting around her mouth.

A cup of ice cubes sat enticingly on the table near her bed, just out of reach. I helped her sit forward. I placed one cube in her mouth. And I watched, as a smile spread across her face.