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Hospice -- True Angels of Mercy serve patients and families

Hospice exists to “improve the quality of life during the end-of-life,” says Jim Pledger, executive director of Hospice of Kitsap County.

“Hospice is about life and living it right up until death,” adds Valerie Youngren, director of development and community relations.

The two are passionate about their work. “People who work here find great satisfaction and fulfillment,” says Youngren. Hospice workers treat people with dignity, compassion and respect, and provide only those services families desire.

Hospice care is not for everyone. But it is an option that folks need to understand, so they may make an informed choice. It is not a deathwatch with doped-up patients, as some have erroneously assumed. The organization is patient and family focused, not disease-focused, Youngren explains.

Hospice usually serves people in their own homes, but also has patients in nursing facilities.

Several people — nearly 40 employees, and over 100 volunteers — comprise Hospice of Kitsap County. Each patient is under the care of a team, with one’s own physician as head of that team, and the patient and family at the center.

“We are a small army,” says Youngren, “but we are mighty.”

The non-profit organization accepts people at the end stage in their chronic disease, regardless of age, background or ability to pay. Examples include people with pulmonary or cardiac diseases, cancer, kidney or liver diseases, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Lou Gehrig’s disease, diabetes or AIDS.

To qualify for hospice care, a patient must agree to receive “palliative rather than curative care. The attending physician…must also concur that the patient has an estimated life expectancy of six months or less, if the illness runs its normal course.”

Not all patients are elderly. Pledger says they have served infants, children and young adults, as long as they qualify medically.

Hospice workers aim to manage pain in every realm: physical, emotional and spiritual. Medically, neither actively hastening nor postponing death, curative medications are removed, while appropriate pain therapies are expertly administered. Testimonies from pleasantly surprised patients laud these skills, which have allowed them to remain alert and engaged in decision-making.

The chaplain can help people find meaning in their situation, says Pledger, while pointing out that hospice is not a faith-based organization.

Hospice nurses visit patients regularly, keeping the primary physician informed. Home health aides give personal care and assistance, such as bathing, dressing or changing bedding.

Social workers help families deal with practical and financial concerns, along with emotional support and counseling. They may assist with reconciliation of an estranged family member or some other unfinished business of life.

Hospice can provide equipment, such as a hospital bed, commode or wheelchair. Whatever is needed — or even desired — hospice will work to meet it.

Trained volunteers usually come sit by the bedside, giving family members time out for themselves. Volunteers may converse, read aloud, or just be there. It is entirely up to the patient and family. Hospice currently has volunteers willing to tape life stories or do yard work.

Once the patient dies, hospice team members offer bereavement help. There are community-based grief groups, even if the person who died was not a hospice patient. Hospice provides groups that are ongoing, short-term, just for children, and in-school groups to help students who have experienced a loss.

Most hospice care is covered by insurance, including Medicare and Medicaid, but the organization also conducts fund-raisers and accepts contributions and memorial donations.

The number of patients cared for at any one time is currently around 60, with some 400 served per year. This number has doubled in the past 4 years, not because of more deaths, but because more people have become aware of this alternative, according to Pledger.

Youngren says they could easily double their patient load with people who qualify for hospice care in Kitsap County.

The organization celebrated its 25th anniversary last year. The current budget is $2.25 million, and has been growing at 10-15 percent annually.

For more information, visit www.hospiceofkitsapcounty.org or call 698-4611.

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