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November 21, 2006 > Choosing Hospice is a Decision to Live, Not Die

Choosing Hospice is a Decision to Live, Not Die

by Washington Hospital

We tend to share a common wish about death— that our own death is peaceful and that our loved ones die peacefully when it is their time. Hospice care is a life-affirming philosophy that the quality at the end of our lives should be as great as possible. Hospice teams work to give their patients a comfortable life and a peaceful death. Hospice Awareness Month in November helps educate the public that a referral to hospice care is not a death sentence, it is a quality of life decision.

“A lot of people think if hospice is called in, then you’re going to die right away,” says Linda Rasmussen, RN, a community relations liaison nurse at Pathways, a community-owned hospice for the tri-city area that works closely with Washington Hospital. “But if hospice can come in, it gives hope that the remaining days a person spends are the best possible.”

Hospice care gets involved with a patient when the focus of medical care changes from curing the patient to making him or her comfortable. Hospice patients usually have a life expectancy of six months or less, although the societal myth is that someone who enrolls in hospice will die very quickly. Hospice is 100 percent covered with Medicare.

“I say that hospice is for people who have a life-limiting illness,” says Nancy Jackson, RN, who often makes the initial visit to patients’ homes when they have been referred to Pathways.

“We know that people with serious illness have many changes: new medications, new diet, new symptoms, new weakness, new roles within their families, and our job in hospice is to address each of these as they come up to help restore patients to their fullest possible productivity, comfort and serenity—for however much time is left,” Rasmussen says. “Sometimes we even discharge people from hospice because with all the extra special care they improve.” A patient can go off hospice for any reason, at any time.

The role of the hospice team is to alleviate the symptoms of a terminal illness, and give emotional and spiritual support to patients and their families. “We have medical directors (physicians with specialties such as geriatrics, oncology, hematology, family medicine and long-term care medicine) and a pharmacist who specialize in symptomatic management,” Rasmussen explains.

Hospice care is directed by a person’s own doctor and it is guided by the wishes of the patient and the family. Hospice nurses are experts in pain and symptom management. They provide hands-on care, and teach the family how to be caregivers.

“We are as aggressive with symptom management as a heart surgeon would be going into fix someone’s heart,” Jackson says. “The first thing we do when we visit a new patient is we make sure they are comfortable right away. We don’t leave that first visit until the patient is comfortable,” Jackson says.

Hospice care is given in the patient’s home, whether that home is a house, apartment, assisted living facility or skilled nursing facility. A hospice professional can work as an advocate for the family when the patient lives in a nursing home and needs special care. A hospice nurse who knows a family well can give extra aid and support when a health crisis occurs, such as extreme pain or breathing problems.

We may dread hearing the words from our doctor that “There is nothing more we can do for you.” Jackson emphasizes that through hospice, there is more that can be done. Jackson encourages families to consider hospice care early on, when a loved one can benefit from weeks or months of good quality, comfortable life, and can build trust in the people helping them through this.

“They can be kept comfortable and they won’t suffer,” Jackson says. “Everyone is going to die, but in hospice, we can make a difference in how those last days are.”

For more information about Pathways Hospice, call (888) 755-7855 or visit

To learn more about local hospice care, tune into InHealth, A Washington Hospital Channel on Comcast Channel 78. The “Understanding Hospice” Voices InHealth program provides a brief history of the modern hospice movement and includes practical advice about getting and paying for hospice care.

The InHealth program schedule is published weekly in the Tri-City Voice and posted on Washington Hospital’s website at InHealth Channel 78 is available to Comcast subscribers in Newark, Union City and Fremont.

For more information about Washington Hospital and the InHealth Channel, visit, click on “For Our Community” and select “InHealth Channel” from the drop-down menu or call (800) 963-7070.

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