TEMPLE TERRACE — James Ford, 95, was telling a story about his service in World War II, while staff at Melech Hospice House took his pulse.
“I got two bronze stars,” he reminded them, though he also noted that the real heroes are the ones who never came home.
Dr. Nicholas James sat by his bed and asked whether his pain, which is caused by prostate cancer, was under control. Ford put it at just a 1 on the scale.
This hospice house was likely quieter than a few weeks ago, when a separate wing was reserved for coronavirus patients, and James was among the staff caring for them. It was the second time the wing was opened for that purpose, as the hospice helps ease the pressure in hospitals when cases spike.
After a year filled with so much death and burnout of health care workers, it can be hard to understand how staff like the nurses at Melech continue to work with dying patients each day — even when there’s not a global pandemic.
Read more: Tampa Bay’s top small workplaces in 2021
James said it’s the fulfillment that comes from helping families work through tough times. When coronavirus patients came to Melech from a hospital, the hospice house was able to accommodate at least one loved one to be with them when they died, staff said.
“It takes a lot of work to be able to manage death and dying every, day but seeing the gratitude, just being able to help a patient at all — especially in these times, especially in a hospital where patients and families were kind of separated, here we could reunite them,” he said. “The families seemed very grateful.”
Temple Terrace-based Chapters Health System, a nonprofit, is the parent company of LifePath Hospice and several local hospice house locations. It was named one of the Tampa Bay Times Top Workplaces for 2021, its first year on the list.
Employees said they are driven each day by their mission of helping people die with comfort and dignity, and that their employer provides them with the support to fulfill that purpose with care.
“I think hospice is a calling,” said Rebecca Jensen, director of inpatient care over both Melech and LifePath Hospice near Sun City Center. She started in hospice after her grandmother died, and she was struck by how hospice workers cared so well for a person who had been so important in her life.
“Once you’ve actually been with hospice, there’s no turning back,” Jensen said. “It’s an honor to guide someone through life to begin with, and to be able to walk them through the steps of the end-of-life process, it’s heartwarming to be able to be there for those families.”
The past year has presented challenges.
James said caring for coronavirus is particularly taxing.
“Sometimes there’s something that just hits (emotionally), especially when we have a young patient,” he said. In one recent instance, a nurse was caring for a patient who closely resembled her best friend, who had also recently died.
“She was having a hard time with that,” James said. “She just came in my office and talked for a few hours.”
The key to coping with death is working as a team, which encompasses Chapters Health System’s approach to hospice, employees said. Doctors, nurses, social workers and chaplains all work together to support each other, the patients and their families.
“It’s not just care of the body, it’s care of the soul, and the whole person,” said Liz Anderson, the director of Philanthropy for LifePath Hospice. She helps raise money through donations, so that the company can offer care to patients without insurance or the ability to pay. Chapters Health also offers bereavement services, including a camp for children.
Anderson similarly decided to work for hospice after seeing how her parents were both cared for by LifePath Hospice before they died, and she was so impressed she wanted to give back. Anderson said that in addition to the charity care, Chapters Health can also use donations to fund additional needs identified by their social workers, such as a hotel room for a patient without a home.
“What makes Chapters Health wonderful to work for is because we’re all like family. We’re all doing that intimate, private work,” she said. “We come to work on purpose.”
Chapters Health System CEO Andrew Molosky said keeping employees “rallied” to avoid burnout during the past year has required leadership to communicate even more than usual to gauge staff’s needs.
“We collaborate on our policies,” he said. “It’s really something we’ve learned from the bedside, what patients love most about their care. Why would we do anything less for our employees?”
When the company decided to take on coronavirus patients — it cared for about 1,100 in all — it invested several million for bonuses, overtime, and extra supports for staff, Molosky said. No staff members died of the coronavirus, according to the company.
“When most people were hunkering down, this group of incredible people ran into the fire,” he said. “They just said, ‘Point me in the direction, let’s go.’ That was a moment as a leadership member, like, ‘Holy Heaven. This army of incredible people is just untouchable.’”
ABOUT THE COMPANY
Chapters Health System is a nonprofit company offering home health, palliative and hospice care along with bereavement, durable medical equipment and pharmacy services.
Location: Headquartered in Tampa, but services are offered in Citrus, Hardee, Hernando, Highlands, Hillsborough, Indian River, Martin, Monroe, Okeechobee, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk and St. Lucie counties
“For the first time in my nursing career I feel I am making a difference in someone’s life.”
“I am trusted and feel like and active member in a team that cares about the needs of others.”
“I love my job because everyone works well together and helps each other out when needed. I love my job because it is very rewarding helping those be comfortable in their last days of life.”