It’s all about living: Altru Hospice celebrates 30th year of providing end-of-life careThe first of it's kind in N.D., the network of 100 workers and 100 volunteers provide for the needs of those with terminal illnesses at home or in assisted-living facilities throughout northeast North Dakota and northwest Minnesota. As one volunteer said, “We want to help them live until they die.”
By: Pamela Knudson, Grand Forks Herald
“We come into this world surrounded by love; we should leave the same way.” Sue Fisk read that somewhere and it’s stayed with her. The Altru Hospice volunteer said she keeps it in mind as she helps patients during their last journey in life.
The program was the first of its kind when it began 30 years ago.
Although “hospice” conjures up thoughts of death and dying — to qualify, patients must have received a terminal illness diagnosis — Altru’s program is all about living, according to Travis Easton, a registered nurse and case manager.
“There’s a fear of the unknown, and end-of-life planning,” he said. Patients may feel isolated or helpless, he said, and some may feel it signifies that they’ve given up.
“We encourage patients to explore their options, be prepared,” he said. “As we see it, the patient is in control. We want to make the patient the ‘driver’ again” in their lives and health care choices.”
“We want to help them live until they die,” said Fisk, a volunteer coordinator who started volunteering with hospice 20 years ago.
Quality of care
“Our goal is to keep our patients in the home until the end,” Easton said. “We call the doctor in the home, call the pharmacy,” whatever is needed.
Hospice provides holistic care — physical, emotional and spiritual, according to Mary Skorheim, a hospice nurse for 20 years. “We need the whole team — nurses, social workers, chaplains, aides and volunteers — in order to do that.”
The hospice medical director, Laura Lizakowski, who joined Altru Health System in July 2009, specializes in palliative care, which focuses on relieving and preventing suffering.
Altru Hospice’s network spans much of northeastern North Dakota and part of northwestern Minnesota, with branch offices in the North Dakota towns of Park River, Grafton, McVille and Cavalier and Warren, Minn. The program seeks volunteers who live within 60 miles of a branch office.
Altogether, the program has 100 employees in Grand Forks and branch offices, and more than 100 volunteers throughout the region.
“We pride ourselves on our response time,” said Skorheim. “If a patient has a need, we want to get there as soon as possible, especially if pain is out of control.”
The response time in Grand Forks is 15 to 30 minutes.
The personal touch
“We like to have our patients get to know us, trust us and feel comfortable with us,” said Amy Peabody, a registered nurse who’s worked with Altru for 20 years.
She values “one-on-one time” with her patients in their homes, she said. “It’s not like in a hospital; no one is pulling you” in other directions.
“You can sit down and talk with the patient. You see pictures on the wall. You don’t have that kind of connection in the hospital.”
She develops strong bonds with patients, she said, by listening to stories.
“I’ve had family members tell me, ‘Dad never talked about that,’” Peabody said. “These are special people; we can learn from them.”
Peabody encourages patients to share their “goals of care,” she said. “One woman said she wants to live through May to see her granddaughter graduate and a baby born.”
“I want to take care of patients like they were my loved ones,” said Skorheim. “I want them to be treated like I would want my loved one to be treated.”
For Sharon White, a hospice patient living at her home in St. Thomas, N.D., a new initiative is making life brighter. Similar to the Make-a-Wish program for children, “Sentimental Journey” grants patients their heart’s desire.
White’s is to see her only living son again. He is flying here from North Carolina next week for a four-day visit.
“My heart is filled with joy. Words cannot express how grateful and appreciative I am,” she said. “Family is very important to me.” She lost her other child, a son, to cancer at age 28 in 1998.
“It’s the best Christmas present,” she said. “I’m going to enjoy every minute of it.”
What’s the catch?
Hospice services are paid by Medicare and Medicaid which covers most patients, Skorheim said. “This includes our services; any equipment that’s needed, like a hospital bed, and certain medications.”
“When patients learn about hospice and its benefits, and that it’s often 100 percent covered, many times their first reaction is, ‘What’s the catch?’” she said.
Some mistakenly believe that a patient must have cancer to be in hospice, Eaton said. Patients may have Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, adult failure to thrive, which may include a multitude of issues, weight loss and difficulty with activities of daily living.
A patient who signs up for hospice is not obligated to remain in the program, he said. Patients who live in their home, an assisted living or skilled nursing facility, group home, a mission or are hospitalized are eligible for hospice care. The patient’s own doctor can still be involved in their care.
When they start receiving services, “family members have told us that, just by having us there, it’s a comfort,” Easton said. Many say they wish they’d come into hospice sooner.
“We want to encourage and empower caregivers so they feel they’re doing a good job in the home,” he said. “They will remember this time for the rest of their lives. We want these memories to be positive.”
Reach Knudson at (701) 780-1107; (800) 477-6572, ext. 107; or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.