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Death is one of the few things that all people have in common.

The hospices in Southern Maryland aim to make that inevitable moment, and the moments leading up to it, a little less painful, both for people dying and their close family and friends. Through bereavement services and, for a growing number of residents, hospice houses, volunteers and hospice staff provide care and compassion that is unmatched.

To learn more

Hospice of Charles County www.hospiceofcharlescounty.org 301-861-5300

Calvert Hospice www.calverthospice.org 301-855-1226 410-535-0892

Hospice of St. Mary’s www.medstarstmarys.org/hospice 301-994-3023

Charles, Calvert and St. Mary’s counties all have a hospice house — a standalone facility where patients diagnosed as having six months or fewer to live can finish out their lives in relative comfort with expert attention. Each hospice house has at least six beds.

No one is turned away, regardless of their ability to pay, so the organizations lean heavily on volunteers and fundraising. For the dozens of Southern Maryland families who have relied on a hospice house as a refuge for their dying relatives, the service is invaluable.

A foundation of volunteers

Mary-Ann Hill’s mother moved into the Burnett-Calvert Hospice House as her cancer advanced and because of dementia, Hill said. Her mother lived there for about 2½ weeks before she died.

Hill, of Huntingtown, said that although her mother really didn’t want to leave their home, she was unable to provide the level of care her mother needed.

“I couldn’t have lived without them,” she said of Calvert Hospice. “They took me through each stage of the dying process.”

She said she visited her mother every day, but the aides and nurses at the hospice house were able to help her when she needed breaks. The staff and volunteers at the house took care of a lot of the day-to-day care, freeing Hill to spend more quality time with her mother, she said.

“I don’t think people realize what a wonderful place it is,” Hill said.

After a period of grieving, Hill decided to give back to the organization that proved to be so valuable. She took on the role of co-chairwoman for the Calvert hospice’s fundraising committee. Her husband, television meteorologist Doug Hill, is the co-chairman.

She is not working directly with patients, at least for now, saying, “That takes a really special person to know that every person you work with probably won’t leave.”

The Burnett-Calvert Hospice House began accepting patients in January 2010.

Brenda Laughhunn, the executive director, said all six beds at the house rarely fill up but that there are at least three or four patients at most times.

Often, “people don’t come to hospice soon enough,” she said.

The average stay at the Calvert hospice house is about two weeks, Laughhunn said.

“We are always recruiting for volunteers,” she said. Everything from paperwork to gardening to cooking is usually done by volunteers. In addition to the patient rooms, the house has a dining room, a play room for children and a serenity room that is used for meditation, prayer or memorial services.

Janet Gibson has visited the Calvert hospice house about once a week since she started volunteering last May. She usually brings her small dog, Evie.

“Most of the people there right now enjoy her visits,” Gibson said.

She saved the 7-year-old Papillon-and-Chihuahua mix from the local humane society, which had been scheduled to euthanize the dog on Christmas Eve. “Petting an animal helps relax you,” Gibson said.

‘It kind of lifts me up’

Peg Baliko of Valley Lee has volunteered with Hospice of St. Mary’s for 16 years. She first helped by visiting patients at their homes, offering comfort to families and helping with basic needs.

When the county’s hospice house opened three and a half years ago, she immediately began spending time there, helping wherever she was needed.

“They realized they needed a volunteer to cook the meals,” so she jumped right in, she said. Now, she usually makes lunches two days a week and fills in when needed.

The meals provided at all of the hospice houses are one way to make it feel like home. Baliko said she likes to pamper the patients, and although she usually has some meal in mind for the day, she’ll oblige if someone asks for something else.

“It’s a fabulous place,” she said of the St. Mary’s house.

Hospice of St. Mary’s is unique in the region because it is affiliated with MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital in Leonardtown. The other two hospices are independent organizations.

The St. Mary’s hospice house offers six beds and had an 87 percent occupancy rate last year.

The average stay last year was 23 days. Some people were in the house for just hours, while others have lived there for six months or even longer.

Kathryn Franzen, director, said the level of care provided to the patients is intensive, so much so that it can help some patients’ health and well-being improve. Rarely do patients become well enough that they actually become ineligible to stay at the hospice house and must move out, she said.

Franzen said many of the patients, especially the elderly, come to the house because they have been labeled with a “failure to thrive” designation by a doctor. Once they begin getting regular, healthy meals and are in the positive environment provided at the hospice house, they get better.

While at first glance those live discharges seem like a blessing, they can actually be hard on family members who have already come to grips with the inevitable, she said.

Again, that’s where the trained hospice volunteers step in.

Baliko said helping those who are nearing death can be quite rewarding, and usually she can stay strong through the process. It is difficult when it is someone she knows, though, like a few years ago when she volunteered to help a close friend who was dying of lung cancer.

After caring for his every need, day in and day out, she had to take a few months off from volunteering when he died.

Providing care for a 5-year-old girl who died of cancer recently was difficult, too, she said. But generally, she knows she is helping not only the patient but also family members get through what are often the hardest times of their lives.

“It kind of lifts me up,” Baliko said.

Training is offered when volunteers start, but they also get ongoing training classes to continue sharpening their care-giving skills.

‘It’s magnificent’

Nancy Bowling, the interim president and CEO of Hospice of Charles County, said the organization has a good relationship with Southern Maryland’s other hospices, and they share information and best practices.

“We are the newest member in this game,” she said. The Charles hospice house opened its doors to patients at the end of November.

The 22,000-square-foot, three-story facility also houses the group’s offices.

It has 10 patient beds, and in addition to the regular residential component offered at the St. Mary’s and Calvert facilities, the Charles house provides more levels of care.

“We have around-the-clock nurses,” she said, in addition to the health aides.

A dying patient also can move into the home for what’s called respite care, “meaning the family just needs a break,” Bowling said. Medicare will pay for five days of respite care every three months, she said.

So far, the house has a couple patients on any given day. Bowling expects that once word spreads of the house’s opening, they will become busier.

It does not, however, have a shortage of volunteers. Currently, some 90 volunteers assist with Charles Hospice, doing everything from administrative work to patient care.

Bowling said the volunteers come from all walks of life but have at least one connection: “You’re involved with hospice because it’s in your heart,” she said.

All three Southern Maryland hospices require volunteers to take a significant amount of training.

Toni Knisley of La Plata said helping at the new hospice house on Davis Road in Waldorf was a cinch. “It’s magnificent,” she said. “You feel like you are in a real home.”

Two to three days a week, Knisley works at the front desk, where she greets families and friends who arrive to visit patients.

That can be tough sometimes, too, she said, describing what she called a heartbreaker, a new patient arriving with her family.

“The family just cried when they came in the door. It’s tough ... but it’s life, and we all go through it,” she said. “They need support. It’s amazing what a hug can do.”

She said the staff and volunteers, including clergy and trained bereavement experts, offer immeasurable support to the patients and their families.

Several of her relatives, including her mother, have used hospice services in another state.

“It was just wonderful, the things they did to help my family out. They made her so comfortable,” Knisley said of her mother’s experience.

She felt the need to give back, so about eight years ago, she began volunteering with her local hospice.

Knisley recalled what her mother said when she went into hospice almost 10 years ago. “She said, ‘There’s only one way out of a hospice house.’”

jyeatman@somdnews.com