A Death With Dignity: How Hospice Care Makes A Difference

Joanne Straub had a vision.

Shortly after starting her position as social worker at the former Andrew Kaul Memorial Hospital in 1980, she met many patients who wanted to go home to die but couldn’t because there was a lack of necessary support. Her vision was to make hospice a reality in our community so that patients could experience death with the dignity they deserved.

Years after she became Director of the Social Services Department at Elk Regional Health Center, she was able to see that dream made reality.

Joanne, who is now a social worker for Community Nurses, Inc., was instrumental in incorporating the Elk-Cameron County Hospice, Inc. She and a group of her colleagues worked to educate physicians, staff members at local hospitals, home health agencies, and nursing homes, as well as local clergy and volunteers about the hospice concept of care. The organization dissolved after reaching their goal: Community Nurses, Inc. became the first organization in the region to provide Medicare-certified hospice services.

When the time came for Joanne’s parents, Edwin and Shirley Gerg, to pass, she was proud that hospice care was available to both of them. It just didn’t happen the way she and her nine siblings thought it would.

In 2003, Edwin Gerg chose to pass at home after a battle with lung cancer. That September, right after Labor Day, Edwin began receiving home hospice care. When he passed on Sept. 14, 2003, it was peacefully at home with his wife and his oldest son at his side.

“I was very proud that the Community Nurses Hospice Team was in place and able to assist our family with Dad’s care,” Joanne said. “Though we only spent two weeks with the Hospice Team, the care and support they provided to Dad and our family made a very difficult experience much more bearable.”

The family’s Hospice experience with their mother, Shirley, was quite different. At the time she passed, Shirley was a resident at Pinecrest Manor – a situation the family had not anticipated.

“If someone would have told me a year ago that my mother would die while a resident of a nursing home, I would have told them they were crazy,” she said. “I would have said that wasn’t going to happen. It was just our plan for family members to provide our parents with care in their home or in one of ours.”

Shirley developed Parkinson’s Disease about a year after Edwin passed. In the summer of 2008, she fell and broke a hip.

“After Mom fell and fractured her hip, my siblings and I provided 24-hour care for her following hospitalization and rehabilitation at Pinecrest,” Joanne said. “That’s just how it was. There was no question. We were there for her, just as we were for Dad. And we thought that’s how it would be when she passed.”

But after a hospitalization at UPMC Hamot in Erie, Pa., Shirley was discharged to Pinecrest Manor for continued treatment and therapy. And as Shirley’s condition deteriorated, both physically and cognitively, the family had to accept that nursing home care was the best option for her end-of-life care.

Keeping Shirley in Pinecrest Manor turned out to be a “no-brainer,” as Joanne put it.

“Pinecrest made us comfortable,” she said. “The staff at Pinecrest and the Hospice Team took care of all of us as though we were family. It wasn’t just because I work here. They cared for my mother as if she were theirs. They allowed us to help with her care and to be with her at any time, 24 hours per day, during her last days. They managed Mom’s care so that my siblings and I could spend quality time with her. They made it seem as though we were caring for Mom at home, just as we’d always planned.

“Mom passed peacefully and with dignity with family at her bedside. We learned that there’s no need to feel guilty because we were unable to care for Mom at home. Because of the staff at Pinecrest and the hospice care team we have at Community Nurses, Mom experienced death with dignity. My siblings and I experienced death without regret.”

PHOTO: Joanne Straub with her mother, Shirley, and her sister, Nancy Wilson, at the 2010 Community Nurses Inc. Butterfly Release for Hospice.

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