By Mike Lang, Staff reporter
WILMINGTON — When a visitor walks through the doors of the unit on the sixth floor of St. Francis Hospital, thearea doesn’t look or sound much different than any other part of the hospital. Concerned family members and friends gather in a waiting room while nurses and other staff go over information at a central station.
But this is no traditional hospital unit. It is Compassionate Care Hospice’s inpatient unit, which opened more than a year ago as the first hospice inpatient unit in a hospital in Delaware.
The unit provides care and treatment for up to 14 terminally ill hospice patients when their symptoms cannot be managed at home.
Since it opened, more than 500 patients have been treated at the unit, with the average length of stay from five to seven days, said Dr. Dan DePietropaolo, the hospice’s medical director.
Hospice is traditionally associated with home care, which Compassionate Care provides for nearly 300 patients in Delaware. The inpatient unit at St. Francis provides more aggressive medical treatment for hospice patients who develop symptoms such as pain, anxiety, shortness of breath, or nausea and vomiting. Patients are cared for by staff who specialize in hospice and palliative care, which emphasizes managing pain and other symptoms, communication, and coordinated care. Hospice nurses and aides provide around-the-clock care and a hospice doctor visits daily to get symptoms under control. Social workers, chaplains, and volunteers are on duty to help families.
Once the symptoms are under control, the patients return home for regular hospice care.
Reminders of home
Each room in the unit has a single bed and a pull-out sleeper chair, and families are encouraged to add personal touches like photographs.
“We try to make their room as much as we can like their room at home,” said Gina McCoy, a registered nurse who is Compassionate Care’s community liaison.
That was the goal when Compassionate Care opened the unit last January, said Tom Taylor, regional director. “I wanted it to feel as welcoming as the community — an area and an ambience that would feel homey and where they would feel secure.”
Sandy McCaa made her first visit to the unit in early March to see a friend, Lilyan Poggi, who was dying from cancer. McCaa was impressed with the feel of the rooms but it was the staff that really caught her attention.
“From what I’ve seen, they treat the patients almost like they’re a relative. They want to make sure they’re comfortable. They try not to move them unless it’s absolutely necessary,” she said.
Joyce Lennon is a grief counselor with Compassionate Care and has helped many families with their losses. In early March, however, she was the one receiving comfort as she spent time with Poggi, who was also her friend.
“The thing that’s really eye-opening to me is I spent the night here last night with my friend, and the staff was in there every hour,” Lennon said. “They sang to her, they prayed with her, they gave her her medicine, they made her comfortable. Even though they know me, they treated me with the respect and the love and the support that, when you have a friend dying, you need.”
The unit has no restrictions on visiting hours and no age limits on who may come in. Quality of life, McCoy said, “means having those people by your side.”
A small meditation room provides solitude; it includes a flag that draped the coffin of a veteran who was a patient. His son, who donated the flag, has volunteered at the hospice and is now serving with the military in Afghanistan, Taylor said. The unit also includes a common kitchen/dining room with two stoves, a refrigerator and four sets of tables and chairs, so families of different patients can provide support to one other, McCoy said.
The unit is like “one big house supporting each other,” Lennon said.
Survivor comes back to talk
Joe Buday has been a regular visitor on the unit almost since it opened. His wife, Sharon — known as “Irish” — died March 12 of last year, and Buday has been returning regularly for therapy sessions with the staff.
“I’m kind of still down and depressed. I recently lost my job, and that doesn’t help,” he said. “It’s just someone to hash things out with, and I really appreciate it.” Buday sometimes brings his dog, Roxie, along with him; the Pembroke Welsh Corgi is welcome on the unit.
Compassionate Care’s employees are not employees of St. Francis, but Taylor said an advantage of being in the hospital is that the hospice has embraced St. Francis’s mission to serve the local community. That made the two organizations a good fit in the first place. “From the very beginning … we talked about the blending of our missions, the mission of Compassionate Care. I think that’s what made us synergistic.”
McCoy hopes the presence of Compassionate Care educates and encourages hospital staff and patients about the benefits of hospice care. It is not, she said, about “giving up.”
“It is being realistic. It’s about walking alongside somebody through that journey.”