Nov. 1 marks the beginning of National Hospice Month. For 2001, the Hospice Association of America and the National Association for Home Care have selected the theme, Hospice: Dignity, Comfort and Inner Peace. This theme emphasizes the core concept of hospice as an interdisciplinary team of experts comprised of physicians, nurses, social workers, clergy and volunteers who provide customized comfort care for individuals who are in the final stages of their lives. Hospice treats the whole patient not just their physical symptoms. It provides psychological, spiritual and emotional support for the patient and their family. Most importantly it allows the patient to be in control of their care, which enables them to maintain their sense of independence and dignity.
The hospice concept was defined and developed by Dr. Cicely Saunders, a British physician who opened St. Christopher's Hospice in London in 1967. Hospice came to the United States in the mid-1970s with an accompanying shift from inpatient settings to home care. Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was instrumental in bringing end of life issues into the American mainstream. Her book, 'On Death and Dying,' first explored the now-famous stages of death: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Dr. Kubler-Ross' work with both the dying and the medical communities revolutionized how we die in America. We can also thank her for the part she played in getting hospice established in Juneau.
In 1979, a class about the adult stages of life being taught at U.A.S. prompted interest in end of life issues. A community meeting was held and the possibility of creating a hospice was discussed. This meeting did not produce results, but it definitely got people's attention. During this same time, several other people in Juneau were talking about cancer care and the issues of the dying. Two of these individuals, Dixie Belcher and Ric Iannolino, thought it would be valuable to have Elisabeth Kubler-Ross come to Juneau and talk about her work. Dixie called Kubler-Ross and found out from her secretary that the doctor was already planning a trip to Anchorage. She asked if it would be possible for Kubler-Ross to stop in Juneau on her way north and was told, 'No!' Dr. Kubler-Ross overheard the conversation and immediately announced her desire to visit Juneau. When Dixie tried to discuss her fee, Kubler-Ross said, "Forget about money." Elisabeth did place one condition on her decision to give the lecture - Juneau would need to have an established hospice before she arrived. She asked Dixie if the community had a hospice and Dixie told her they did, based on the flyers she had seen around town. When she contacted the people from the flyers to tell them the exciting news, she was surprised to learn that no hospice existed.
With only one week before Kubler-Ross' visit, they had to move fast to get a hospice established. Many calls were made and within the week enough people were gathered to create an all-volunteer hospice organization. One of the people who answered the call was Bella Hammond, Gov. Jay Hammond's wife, who worked tirelessly for the cause. This group was able to donate enough money to pay for Kubler-Ross' airline ticket, and with that purchase, Hospice of Juneau was founded. The auditorium was filled for Dr. Kubler-Ross' lecture. She met with many local groups and individuals, which helped to build more community support for the new hospice. She also made the first substantial donation - $500 - that enabled Hospice to purchase supplies for their initial operation. Hospice of Juneau was incorporated as a non-profit organization in January 1980. During the first full year of operation 16 patients and their families were served.
Almost 22 years later we are still going strong. On Nov. 1 Hospice and Home Care of Juneau was given a Citation of Honor by the Circle of Life Foundation. This award is given to organizations that show innovation in end-of-life care. We were chosen for our original play, Unexpected Gifts'; for our extensive bereavement focus; for our special attention to the spiritual and religious practices of a diverse population; and for our creative approach to funding. We were deeply honored by this recognition. It is such strong evidence that small doesn't have to mean insignificant, and that the dedication and compassion of a community can change the world. We are grateful to have the privilege of serving the dying and their families, so grateful to be working side by side with competent and caring professionals and passionate volunteers.
Mary Cook is a Hospice volunteer who divides her time between Juneau and Gustavus. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.