By KAMIL ZAWADZKI
Kamil Zawadzki/Telegram Nurse Jamie Longoria sits at her desk at St. Catherine Hospital Hospice. Longoria provides end-of-life care for patients in their homes, where some of them feel most comfortable in their last days.
When their loved ones are not long for this world, families need support that may go beyond finances and medical treatment.
That's where hospice care comes in, with staff at facilities like St. Catherine Hospital's Hospice Care Center providing social, moral and spiritual support to both the dying and the bereaved.
That, according to Kenne Whitson, executive director of the hospice center, is an important service for the people living in the 17 counties in western Kansas.
"The importance is there to have someone who deals with these types of situations on a regular basis available to be a resource and support to people who are dealing with it, a lot of times for the first time," Whitson said.
Whitson started out as a chaplain at the hospice, before moving into his current role as director. As chaplain, he provided spiritual counseling and support to families anticipating and grieving a death. That is just one component that the hospice provides during end-of-life care, in addition to medical assistance.
"It's a very holistic program," Whitson said. "We help them get back to their previous normal... We're helping to support them in every aspect of who they are."
The hospice has 18 people on staff, as well as 125 volunteers. While there are opportunities to help with various tasks at the office, direct contact with and care for patients is a large part of hospice work, and it's not for everyone.
"You have to be very compassionate," nurse Jamie Longoria said. "If you're not compassionate, then this is not the place for you to be."
Longoria has been a hospice nurse for three years, and suggests that people get experience with general health care and educate themselves about what they will have to face while working at a hospice.
"You really have to have a good working knowledge of all diseases," she said. "Practice good self-care. You have to take care of yourself to be physically and mentally able to handle a hospice position."
Whitson also said that people considering volunteering at the hospice must be "caring individuals" and must be "willing to help out in challenging situations" that arise with end-of-life care.
The process may begin with a referral from another arm of the St. Catherine Hospital health system and initial consultation. Longoria said that a single nurse usually tends to about five or six patients a day, but that includes traveling between the office and the patients' homes, as well as collecting any supplies needed.
Because the hospice serves 17 counties in such a vast region, the logistics can be a challenge, but the hospice has nurses and volunteers based in communities across its coverage area to help lessen the load on the Garden City hub. Patients rarely come to get their services in-house.
"The care is provided in their home," Whitson said. "The majority of people at large would prefer to die at home than in a hospital."
It is hard for Whitson and Longoria to estimate an average timespan of a patient's contact with the hospice before they pass. Some, they have been seeing for as long as two years, while others come and go in less than 24 hours.
Whitson said people dying can take its toll.
"We are developing a relationship of a sort with all of these patients and families, and ultimately the majority of them do die, and that can be challenging," he said. "We try to monitor each other for fatigue, compassion... and spend time talking through situations."
He said that the staff have meetings every two weeks to check in with each other and discuss their ongoing cases. The in-house counseling, as well as more retreat-oriented training throughout the year, helps the staff cope with the reality of the job.
Though the hospice workers have to try to not get too attached to their patients, Whitson said that building relationships and trust with the families is key.
"We don't want to be overtly clinical and distanced, we want to be connected and participatory, and that's how we can help them holistically," he said. "It's just maintaining healthy, open dialogue with other members of the team so that we can discuss situations and gain different perspective."
Longoria said that getting attached to certain patients does happen, and that is the most challenging part of the job.
"Losing those patients and losing contact with their families is very hard," she said, adding that practicing good self-care is crucial and may come in different forms. "Self-care, for me, is spending time with my family, reading those extra hobbies and things you like to do."
She said that "letting go" is not a term she might use, because "you really can't let that stuff go." But being able to separate the work from the personal life can help people deal with the nature of hospice care.
For Longoria, a person of faith, letting go of the patients is not the hardest part, however.
"It's seeing the families and how they're suffering," she said.
At the St. Catherine Hospice Care Center, grief counseling doesn't necessarily end with a patient's life, and services are available to anyone dealing with a loss, even if they did not personally know a patient served by the hospice. In addition to continued assistance through counseling and local support groups, the hospice offers an annual retreat to help the bereaved come to terms with their loss and help them learn to live with it.
Though they must deal with death and dying daily, both Longoria and Whitson said their work is rewarding.
"This is the place I was meant to be," Longoria said. "My favorite part of my job is home visits... Families in this situation where they're struggling, and this is probably the most difficult time in their lives, and the most intimate time in their lives... are always so open and willing to let strangers come in and provide their care... they're always so thankful."
"We get the blessing of gaining a lot of knowledge from these individuals who are at end of life, and who can look at life from a perspective that many of us do not," Whitson said. "Most rewarding are the people we get to meet and the relationships we get to be witness to."
St. Catherine Hospice
Address: 602 N. Sixth St.
Phone: 272-2519 or (800) 281-4077.
Hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday; staff on call
Services: End-of-life care where focus is on the comfort of the person.
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