We have decided to take a risk. We are writing about a subject which might be considered too serious by many a glossy magazine. But, whether you live here or are visiting, we hoped that you would want to know more about a very important institution in our Valley, and the incredible work it does here and in so many other communities.
We are talking about hospice, the organization dedicated to providing comfort and dignity at the end of life through palliative care and practical and emotional support for patients and their caregivers. So, read on, please.
THIS IS AN IMPORTANT STORY.
The first hospice opened in England in 1967, and, as so often happens with significant change in American towns, the seeds for hospice’s establishment in Vail were sown by a very small group of determined, civic-minded women.
In 1990 Margo Peter put a tiny ad in the local paper, calling a meeting on the subject. A handful of women saw it and attended. They recognized the need, seized on the idea, and worked diligently to bring hospice to Vail. Of these, Daphne Slevin had just returned from England, where she had seen the huge difference hospice made in her sister’s final days. Jan Jackson had recently had a similar experience at her father’s bedside.
They wanted the care and solace which their families had experienced elsewhere to be available here too. Vail was growing up. People were staying. What had been a small ski town was turning into an established community, and the women recognized hospice as a key element in the continuum of medical care which Eagle Valley residents needed and deserved.
They moved quickly. In 1991, thanks to their efforts, Mountain Hospice was incorporated as a non-profit volunteer service organization. “In the beginning, we were a small group. Everyone did everything. This was truly a grass roots effort,” says Jan.
It serves communities in over 6,000 square miles of Western Colorado including Eagle and three other counties. It is part of Home Care and Hospice of the Valley, which also offers occupational and rehabilitation services, pediatric care for medically complex and technology-dependent children, a Private Pay Services Program, and the We Love Veterans Program, in which veterans help veterans. Hospice, however, is its heart and soul.
Joette Gilbert, editor-in-chief of this magazine, and her husband James have recently experienced hospice, caring for James’s elderly mother until she passed away in their home. Alice Gilbert was hospitalized with a broken back and hip, and her condition was diagnosed as life-limiting.
The hospital had done all it could and counseled the family to call hospice (that’s right, hospice is not just for cancer patients). It was time “to switch from cure to care.” “Not many people are privileged to spend the last leg of life’s journey with a parent,” says Joette. “We were only able to do it because of hospice.” She describes the family’s initial experience with hospice as “a fast moving miracle.”
An ambulance was provided to bring Alice home. A hospital bed arrived, quickly followed by a hospice nurse and doctor. “The whole thing was seamless,” she says. Joette does not sugar-coat the commitment entailed in caring for a loved one at home, but she explains that “hospice makes the difference between making that commitment and fulfilling it well.” Joette describes the hospice nurses as angels.
“They came to the house several times a week to bathe Alice and minister to her in other ways, and they taught us how to take care of her, from the right way to move her to how to administer morphine at the end. Perhaps most importantly, they told us, to the best of their ability, what to expect next, greatly reducing the fear factor.”
She also lauds hospice volunteers, who would sit with Alice, so that both Gilberts could occasionally leave the house when she needed round the clock care. “They made it possible for us to have a life,” says Joette. Nor did hospice’s involvement end with Alice’s death. That day, one of her two nurses, Kathy, came to the house at 6:00 a.m.
“She stayed with us, taking charge of the many things which had to be done. She made death palatable,” says Joette. “Hospice,” she concludes “brings out the best in a family and helps you discover strengths you never knew you had.”
Indeed, Hospice of the Valley continues to sustain family and loved ones after the patient’s death. Its Grief and Bereavement Support Program offers help with memorial services, provides counseling, and creates a community for the bereaved through support groups and workshops, and access to other survivors. It also serves the larger community through its education programs.
Counseling is available throughout the hospice experience. According to Gail Britt, the hospice chaplain and volunteer coordinator for Eagle County, “We meet patients and their families where they are in terms of their personal spiritual beliefs and practices.” The chaplaincy endeavors to help patients with tough end-of-life issues whether or not they have a belief system. It is dedicated to the hospice mission of bringing patients peace, surrounding them with comfort, and preserving their dignity.
Hospice, Gail emphasizes, is a team effort, which calls on both professionals and volunteers. To be accredited, a hospice must have a volunteer component. There are almost 200 volunteers serving patients in Western Colorado, 45 of them in Eagle County. Their comprehensive training addresses a broad range of end-of-life issues, from the physical and spiritual aspects of death and dying to information about pain and symptom management.
Volunteers work as many or as few hours as they wish. Their duties range from holding a patient’s hand, reading a book, or just chatting to doing light chores in the house or the yard, or giving a massage or a manicure if they are so qualified. They can help with clerical work in the hospice office and, if they wish, train with the chaplain to be bereavement volunteers. They support families by giving them essential respite from their caregiving duties.
Markey Butler, R.N., MHSA is the executive director of Home Care and Hospice of the Valley. With many testimonials like Joette’s, she can be justly proud of the organization she heads.
As Joette describes, patients going into hospice are immediately surrounded by help, which, though spontaneous and genuine in its warmth, is the product of a very solid, well-functioning organization.
An office in Edwards is responsible for most of Eagle County and one in Basalt for the rest of the territory. Both put together teams for patient care, consisting of a physician, regstered nurses, professional social workers, spiritual care counselors, home health aides,
a registered dietician, rehabilitation therapists, and trained volunteers, as needed.
Markey Butler points out that at Hospice of the Valley, no patient is ever denied care for lack of insurance or financial resources. The organization works with Medicare, Medicaid and insurance companies. Gaps are made up through fundraising. Jan Jackson began organizing the annual Trees of Hospice fundraiser in 1990 (when it brought in a little over $400). In 2013 it raised $60,000. Other events, grants, donations and bequests make up the rest.
And, Markey explains, the need for hospice and home care is increasing. She points to the demographics in Western Colorado, where by 2025, the number of residents between the ages of 60 and 79 will have grown dramatically. “Our goal,” she says, “is to help people stay here, age in place and do it well, all the way to the end of life.” And she debunks what she considers an unfortunate myth that hospice care is time-limited to 6 months. Once you have been admitted to Hospice of the Valley, it will stay with you to the end.