Dr. Margaret Jacobson says it’s inaccurate to think the phrase, “There’s nothing more we can do,” applies to the terminally ill in Whatcom County.
Jacobson is medical director for Whatcom Hospice, a program of PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center that offers medical care and emotional and spiritual support during a person’s final six months of life.
The staff of a hundred includes medical personnel, nurses, social workers and an interfaith chaplain, plus about 200 volunteers who assist in the mission of “providing comfort and ensuring dignity when a cure is no longer possible.”
“Hospice is the gold standard for patient- and family-centered care,” Jacobson says.
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More than half of all people who have non-traumatic deaths in Whatcom County enroll in hospice. Whatcom Hospice usually serves about 120 people at a time in their private homes, in nursing homes, and in the hospital. Patients receive help managing their symptoms with as little pain and anxiety as possible.
In addition, Whatcom Hospice House allows the most critically ill patients to live their final days in a comfortable, private and homey environment with individualized care. Located next to the hospice’s administration building near Joe’s Gardens in south Bellingham, the facility has 12 bedrooms, private bathrooms, a family room, a hydrotherapy room, a sanctuary, and a playground for young visitors.
Whatcom Hospice House opened in 2010. Fundraising was championed by Mike Bradburn, current board president of Whatcom Hospice Foundation. Bradburn discovered the benefits of the service when his mother was in a similar facility in Longview.
The nonprofit foundation, a separate organization from Whatcom Hospice, has raised more than $15 million since 1992. Besides investing in Whatcom Hospice House, it has raised money for medical equipment, medication, bereavement support, and other needs. The foundation also funds charity care for people who aren’t covered by Medicare or other insurance.
“We accept all patients regardless of their ability to pay,” says Richard Hammond, hospice director.
More than half of hospice’s patients are covered by Medicare, which has strict policies similar to those used by most insurance companies. To become a hospice patient, two doctors must certify that the person has six months or less to live, following a list of criteria. The patient is evaluated at regular intervals; some people end up spending more than six months under hospice care.
Several barriers can deter people from seeking hospice services. Broadly speaking, many people find the subject of death uncomfortable, so it can be hard to acknowledge the inevitable is near.
More specifically, some people have the mistaken idea that hospice hastens the dying process or is connected with assisted suicide and the Death with Dignity Act. Hospice neither prolongs nor accelerates the end. In fact, studies have shown that the palliative, multifaceted care of hospice can give people more time to live than medical interventions would have provided.
It might seen strange, Hammond says, but sometimes patients who improve and “graduate” out of hospice are upset by that, because they and their loved ones don’t want to say goodbye to the services that hospice provides.
“We do a magnificent job of supporting caregivers,” he says.
Hammond and Jacobson both hope that more families will reach out to Whatcom Hospice.
“Self-referral is fine,” Hammond says. “Pick up the phone and call us.”