Valdosta Daily Times

November 25, 2012

A special kind of care

Elizabeth Butler
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — Hospice of South Georgia marks its 25th anniversary this year caring for people’s loved ones during the final months of their lives. Executive Director Susan Cherry Bowden takes a look back to 1987 when the not-for-profit organization began in a janitor’s closet.

“Hospice of South Georgia sure had humble beginnings ... we started with a community interest meeting in the basement of South Georgia Medical Center,” she said. “Deciding that hospice care sounded like a good cause and a needed service, we were given a janitor’s closet and two empty patient rooms on the fifth floor of the hospital to set up shop.

“I remember in the early days just getting folks to understand the word ‘hospice’ was a challenge ... we’ve been called ‘hoe-spice,’ ‘hop-ice,’ ‘hot-spice,’ and I have one very distinct memory of driving up to an elderly gentleman’s home to talk to him about helping care for his wife ... he stepped out to meet me with his hands on his hips and said, ‘Young lady, are you from that Hostage group?’ It’s a little better now.”

Covering rural South Georgia without GPS and cell phones proved challenging.

“In my early days, nights and weekends on call as a hospice nurse, I responded to calls all over our service area ... Lowndes and surrounding counties. And never with a GPS. Directions often sounded like this: ‘Well, ma’am, just head on out toward Mayday where you turn off the paved road and go right on the dirt road about 1 and 1/2 mile, then you’ll see an old school bus sitting in a field; keep going until you pass about five mailboxes, then watch for a big oak tree that got hit by lightning; turn left right there and go past about three more mailboxes until you come to the second yellow house on the left ... and it’s the middle of the night so these landmarks and colors mean nothing. Many a night driving all over the countryside alone, I thought to myself ... if my Daddy knew where I was right now ...

“I look back and I don’t know how we did it.”

Since 1987, Hospice of South Georgia has cared for more than 4,000 families in the service area.

“On any given day, we are working with 50-60 families in eight counties,” she said.

Bowden, who was the first paid Hospice of South Georgia nurse, remembers fondly her first Hospice patient.

“I think it was divine intervention that Forrest Duren was my first Hospice patient. He had a cancer that usually progresses very rapidly, and he had been given three months to live. He had such a strong desire to beat the odds. He was determined to get up and do as much as he could every day — even with chronic pain. He actually lived much longer than predicted.

“That first experience instilled in me that there is always hope. My job was to help him be as pain-free as possible and through Hospice give him support to face what each day might bring.”

Hospice was also able to help support his whole family, since they were grieving the loss of their son, who had died of the same cancer a year prior to Forrest’s diagnosis.

Over the years Hospice has grown in its service, has been in several locations on the SGMC campus and in the community, and now has a campus on Pineview Drive which includes Langdale Hospice House offering round-the-clock care.

“It truly is a ministry,” Bowden said. “It’s more than the physical care — it’s the emotional and spiritual.

“Hospice embraces the family — not just the patient. We are just as concerned about the caregiver. We offer respite care for five days if a caregiver is tired or needs to go out of town. We stay in touch with the caregivers for a year after the death of their loved ones. We visit them in their homes and offer a support group.”

About 50 people volunteer their time with Hospice.

“It’s amazing that people will take food, sit with the family, basically do what any good friend would do,” she said.

With all the advances in technology, Bowden said there are still many aspects of good hospice care that haven’t changed: “High tech will never take the place of high touch, and hospice care truly touches the lives of many.

“Yes, our staff have cell phones, GPS and laptops for point of care electronic documentation, but they still know that nothing takes the place of sitting still and listening for a while, nothing takes the place of physical presence and touch ... a gentle hug or holding the hand of a patient or a weary caregiver. Nothing takes the place of knowing someone well enough that they trust you with their emotional and spiritual pain as well as their physical pain.”

Those interested in learning more about Hospice of South Georgia may call (229) 249-4100 or 1-800-Hospice. Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance cover Hospice.

“We care for people who have no insurance,” Bowden said. “We don’t turn anyone away.”