There’s a poetic symmetry to the Latin word that became hospice: Hospes referred to the powerful bond between hosts and their guests, and its current incarnation is no different. A hospice is more than mortar and brick: It’s a space where our friends and neighbors receive comfort and care in their most vulnerable moments; where caregivers become more than givers of medicine and readers of charts – they become family.
One of the first hospices opened in the 14th century, when the order of the Knights Hospitaller of St. John of Jerusalem set up a refuge for the incurably ill. Men and women of the cloth were the original hospice workers – they tended to patients who were grappling with their era’s most vicious ailments, like tuberculosis. The Irish Religious Sisters of Charity established one of the oldest hospices, Our Lady’s Hospice, in 1879. That hospice is still operational, with branches in Sydney, Australia and London, England. Hospice care crossed the Atlantic when the St. Rose’s Hospice by the Servants for Relief of Incurable Cancer opened its doors in 1899.
Though palliative care – care that focuses on preventing and alleviating a patient’s suffering – has been around for quite a while, positioning hospices within a more traditional hospital is a relatively new practice. In 2008, Northwest Hospital – through a partnership with Seasons Hospice and Palliative Care Maryland – became the first hospital in the state to open a fully-dedicated hospice inpatient unit. Now, Sinai Hospital is opening its own 15-room unit in January 2013.
Diane Johnson, vice president and chief nursing officer at Sinai Hospital, explains the difference between an acute care unit and a hospice: “It’s about shifting gears from treating someone aggressively, to trying to make them as comfortable as possible.” A variety of techniques – including medication, ice therapy and heat therapy (among others) – are employed to quell pain and give patients dignity and peace. Beloved family pets will be allowed in the unit, ever-ready with their consoling kisses and cuddles.
According to Seasons’ patient education reference guide, candidates for hospice care typically:
Have a life expectancy of six months or less if the illness runs its normal course
Are no longer seeking a cure
Want to stay at home as long as possible
When we hear the word “hospice,” we often think of a gauzily-lit room where a sick person eases to their final sleep. But hospices are actually able to attend to a variety of patient and family needs; often the goal is alleviating someone’s suffering so they can return home. And the hospices at Sinai and Northwest hospitals are designed to be real homes away from home for patients and their families.
The Sinai unit, just like the one at Northwest, will boast private suites equipped with spacious bathrooms and comfy furniture (including sleeper sofas), which comes in handy since visitation hours run 24/7. Julie Kinsinger, director of Clinical Services at Seasons, adds that the unit will have “a residential feel” with lounge areas, a kid’s corner and café. “It’s just as much about the families,” Kinsinger says. That’s why patient families are offered 13 months of bereavement counseling (at minimum).
Sue Jalbert, vice president of Patient Care Services at Northwest Hospital, says the Northwest Hospital hospice unit has recently undergone a cosmetic upgrade, repainting, installing new carpets and putting in new furniture. But the heart and soul of hospice care is in the dedicated caregivers. Jalbert describes a tranquil, affirming environment: “There’s a feeling like someone’s got their arms around you.”