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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Miller, MD

Hospice Services Expanding in Mendocino County

Hospice is a program designed to provide the special care needed for someone at the end of life. We often think of this for patients with advanced cancer, however, it can be helpful for anyone with a terminal illness which might include advanced heart disease, stroke, emphysema, cirrhosis or other illnesses where the person is expected to pass away from the illness within 6 months and where the goals of treatment have shifted to quality of life over trying to prolong life.

The focus of hospice care is on reducing suffering, both physical and mental. Emphasis on helping the patient maintain dignity and self-determination is important. Hospice also provides emotional and spiritual support for the patient’s loved ones.

The Adventist Health Hospice of Mendocino County (AHHMC) has been providing services around Willits and Ukiah, and has expanded throughout the county from Laytonville, south to Hopland, into Potter Valley and now out to the Mendocino Coast. There are plans to further expand services soon to include Covelo and Anderson Valley.

For several years, hospice on the Coast has been limited to just one visiting home health nurse supported by volunteers who provided emotional support. Now, the hospice program has expanded under the leadership of Junice Wilson, RN, Hospice and Home Health Administrator for Adventist Health in Mendocino County.

“We have worked so long and hard to get full hospice services back to the people on the Coast that I am relieved and encouraged that it is now happening,” Wilson said. “We would like to be able to serve all of the people on the Coast who need and desire hospice services.” Currently, AHHMC is caring for 8 people on the Coast with capacity to go up to 15 and with long range plans to increase that number to 20. Services are currently in-home only, however, this will eventually expand to include providing services to residents of local nursing facilities and patients at Adventist Health Mendocino Coast hospital.

On the Coast, the program is fully staffed with one full-time and one part-time hospice nurse with plans to add more nurses as the program grows. There is also a chaplain, home health aides, and medical social worker who, along with the nurses, are dedicated to caring for patients on the Coast.

Dr. Claudia Petruncio, who is board certified in hospice and palliative care medicine, is the medical director of the program. “It is wonderful to expand this important service and to be able to help both patients and their families during this difficult and also sacred time of transition,” she said. “It is so important that someone going through this is not alone and that there is someone for them to call upon. That there is expert help to provide support to them and their loved ones. Hospice combines emotional and spiritual support with medical expertise.”

Since this is a Medicare Certified Hospice Program, Medicare patients can use their Medicare Hospice Benefit. “We take all insurance, including Medicare and Veteran’s Affairs,” said Wilson. “Kaiser has currently restricted its coverage for payment to the inland region, but we are working with them to eventually expand Kaiser coverage out to Fort Bragg as well.” Wilson added that if the person does not have insurance, then such referrals will be considered on a case-by-case basis. To be eligible for hospice, a person must be referred by a healthcare provider and have a terminal illness with a life expectancy of less than 6 months.

Another important local group that works closely with home health and hospice is the Friends of Health (formerly Friends of Hospice) which has assisted in providing access to grief support groups for many years. Friends of Health also assists patients and families with obtaining medications, medical equipment, and caregiving services. “We have even paid for travel and airfare expenses for family and loved ones to come at the end of a person’s life,” said Cynthia Wall, the group’s president. “We could be called friends of healthcare, but hospice will always be our number one priority.” In 2012, Friends of Health raised money for the hospital to remodel room 112 as a special space for end-of-life care dubbed “A Room with a Soul”. Several local businesses also donated furniture and decorations. Friends of Health is a non-profit organization that is funded through private donations. Other helpful resources in Mendocino County include the Cancer Resource Centers of Mendocino County, community senior centers, Mendocino County Social Services and local churches.

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