Making every day count

Rice Hospice uses a variety of methods to make the final days comfortable

Having pets visit hospice patients has been invaluable. Contributed photo

Make each day count because tomorrow is never promised to anyone. That’s why the goal of Rice Hospice in Willmar is to make those final days of life as peaceful and comfortable as possible for its patients.

“It takes a certain type of person to work with hospice patients,” said Rice Hospice Director, Mary Beth Potter. “You have to have a passion for this type of care.”

Rice Hospice, which has been in existence since 1982, has a staff of 36, plus 270 volunteers, with satellite offices in Appleton, Benson, Dawson, Granite Falls, Montevideo, and Ortonville/Graceville. Each office has a nurse, social worker, chaplain and a volunteer coordinator. Rice Hospice serves around 500 patients a year.

Not only does Rice Hospice’s dedicated staff assist patients with any physical, emotional and spiritual needs, but they also help families cope during these difficult times.

“Bereavement care is provided to families for over 12 months following the death of their loved one,” said Potter.

There are several different therapies implemented by the Rice Hospice staff, all geared toward making the patient’s final days as comfortable and enjoyable as possible. And, in turn, families are also able to deal with a loved one’s death much easier knowing they received proper care.

To further ease a family’s burden during trying times, the care Rice Hospice provides comes with little or no cost to the patient or family.

“The costs are paid by Medicare, Medicaid, VA, private insurance plans or through donations to Rice Hospice, which is Medicare certified,” said Potter. “And we get some very generous donations.”

A general misconception about any hospice care is that only cancer patients are accepted.

“Hospice care is for all patients with an end-stage illness with a life expectancy of six months or less, including, but not limited to Alzheimer’s, cardiac disease, ALS, stroke and liver disease,” said Potter.

Rice Hospice’s medical director is Dr. David Newcomer, DO, CHPCP, an internist at Willmar’s ACMC. He is also board certified in hospice and palliative medicine.

“That is a real benefit for us as you don’t find many hospice and palliative care board certified physicians in rural areas,” said Potter.

Sentimental Journey

Phyllis Levitz and her granddaughter Jessica Thrasher at Thrasher’s wedding. Levitz was able to attend the wedding thanks to the Sentimental Journey program. Contributed photos

Working in conjunction with Rice Hospice, the Willmar Ambulance Service instigated an outstanding program seven years ago called “Sentimental Journey.”

Similar to Make-a-Wish, in which a terminally ill patient may request to attend or participate in a certain event free of charge, 61 Sentimental Journeys have been granted by the Willmar Ambulance Service so far. A hospice-trained EMT and a paramedic travel along with the patient on his/her journey.

The late Phyllis Levitz requested that her Sentimental Journey be to see her granddaughter, Jessica (Beasley) Thrasher, get married.

“I’ve lived in North Carolina the past 11 years, and one of the reasons I didn’t want to have a long-distance wedding was because I wanted my grandmother to be there, and I didn’t think she could make that long trip. That was even before she got sick and was under hospice care.”

So Willmar Ambulance Service/Hospice personnel granted Levitz’s wish and brought her via ambulance to the Maynard Lutheran Church in 2011 to attend the ceremony.

“When she saw me, she told me I was the most beautiful bride and that she was so happy to be there,” said Thrasher. “It meant so much to me to have her at my wedding. And it was so important to her, too. It gave her hope and something to look forward to.”

The Sentimental Journeys are fully paid for through hospice donations. Each Sentimental Journey patient receives a quilt donated by a local church group to keep them comfortable during the trip. The family then receives the quilt as a remembrance, as well as receiving a booklet of photos from their loved one’s journey.

“For Rice Hospice to do this for my grandmother meant everything to me, as I’m sure it does to others,” said Thrasher. “It is such a meaningful and thoughtful thing to do.”

Another final request from a hospice patient was to return to his hunting shack one more time.

“His former hunting buddies all showed up, and they sat on the porch and reminisced,” said Brad Hanson, Willmar Ambulance Service operations manager.

Another journey included a young mother’s wish to be taken to the Mall of America to watch her two young daughters pick out dolls from the American Girls Doll Company.

“She wanted them to have the dolls to remember her by,” Hanson said. “And we even received donations from some people and were able to pay for the girls’ dolls.”

But the requests have also been as simple as a trip to the Dairy Queen for a blizzard, one final look over a farm, a trip to a flower garden, an ice fishing trip, a concert, or even a ride on a Harley Davidson.

“One lady wanted to ride on a Harley one more time,” explained Hanson. “So we got her on a (three-wheeler) and she rode on the back. There were a bunch of others riding Harleys with her. As they drove her around, she had both arms raised in the air to show what a good time she was having.”

“The requests are all important to us. We can’t grant requests two or more states away, but we try to grant almost all of them. And family members are welcome to come along with us.”

The hospice/ambulance program is currently the only one of its kind in the state and one of only a handful in the country.

“It’s one of the best things we’ve ever done, in the sense of giving back to the community” said Hanson, proudly. “And the families really appreciate what we do. A lot of them treat us like a member of their own family. It’s a difficult time for everyone, but to give someone a chance to do something they want is like a battery recharger for our staff.”

Pets with a purpose

Brittney Odens, marketing coordinator at Rice Memorial Hospital, is also one of the handlers in the volunteer pet therapy program offered by Rice Hospice. Here she is with her yorkie, Maggie, bringing a smile and comfort to a patient. Contributed photo

Brittney Odens, the marketing coodinator at Rice Memorial Hospital, is also one of the handlers in the volunteer pet therapy program offered by Rice Hospice since 2009.

Although her yorkie named Maggie weighs only 3 pounds, her presence weighs heavily on the hearts of the patients she visits.

“When I get the (purple Rice Hospice) vest that therapy dogs wear out of my closet, Maggie knows she is going with me to work and starts running around in circles. She loves it, and the patients love seeing her.”

Having pets visit hospice patients has been invaluable in a sense that they can connect with the past while at the same time creating a positive diversion from treatments and pain, and also reducing anxiety and fear.

“The patient reflects back to a time when they had a certain dog growing up and will talk about it,” said Odens. “They really love having a pet come in and will often ask if today is the day Maggie is coming to visit. They refer to her as their dog, and they’ll tell family members ‘This is my dog, Maggie.’”

Some patients will request a certain breed of dog that they may have had growing up.

“We try to accommodate them if we have the type of dog they requested,” said Rice Hospice Volunteer Coordinator Deb Van Buren. “It’s just an extra way Rice Hospice can bring joy to the patient and their family.”

There are strict guidelines as well as a training period a dog and handler must pass before being accepted into the program.

“We have trained a total of around 90 dogs, and we currently have 30-35 dogs visiting patients, including those at our satellite offices,” said Van Buren. “We examine and test the dogs. We aren’t necessarily looking for a particular breed or size of dog, but we want them to have the right temperament to work with the patients. The dogs are not only trained, but insured and immunized as well.”

And the handlers will bring their dog to wherever the patient might be residing, whether it’s in their home, a nursing home, assisted living facility, or the hospital.

A patient can become so attached to the dog and handler, that when they pass away, the family often invites them to the visitation and/or funeral.

“The dog can really help in bringing the patient though their final journey,” said Van Buren. “It becomes a flood of emotions.”

A song in their heart

Donna Jo Kopitzke, the music coordinator for Rice Hospice playing the reverie harp. Contributed photos

Donna Jo Kopitzke is the music coordinator for Rice Hospice and has witnessed first hand the benefits music has in a terminally ill patient.

“Music has a lot of parallels to the pet therapy,” she said. “It’s a wonderful diversion, especially to those experiencing pain.”

Even some patients who aren’t able to communicate or have Alzheimer’s disease enjoy the music.

“Some of them will sing along, clap, or pretend they are conducting,” Kopitzke remarked. “Sometimes they even get up and dance.

“And some of them with brain tumors may not be able to speak but can still sing along because they are using a different part of the brain. It’s pretty amazing. And it brings a lot of joy to their families to see them participating and so happy.”

Patients have also requested certain songs or hymns to Kopitzke.

“They tell me stories about the hymn and what the text means to them,” said Kopitzke. “I sing a couple of hymns in Norwegian or Swedish, and they will translate the words and teach me the pronunciations. It helps them talk about eternal life and the reality of what lies ahead.”

Veterans Program

George Kaddatz, a hospice patient and U.S. Marine Corps veteran, was honored three years ago through the “We Honor Veterans” program. Contributed photo

Rice Hospice also has a program called “We Honor Veterans” that recognizes patients that served our country in one of the branches of the military.

“We honor them with a ceremony,” said Van Buren. “They receive a pin, a plaque and a blanket. We have music, and family members will come. It’s a way to give them a final recognition.”

George Kaddatz, a Rice Hospice patient, was a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who was honored three years ago.

Kaddatz’s grandson, Michael “M.J.” Madden, served in the Army for six years. He traveled from the Twin Cities to be at his grandfather’s ceremony.

“When I walked in the room in my full military uniform, I could see my grandfather’s face light up,” said Madden. “I was able to put his pin on his lapel, and it was such a joy to see his face light up again.”

And the pride of being honored for serving their country emits from the veteran throughout the ceremony.

“They played the Marine Corps hymn for him,” said Madden. “What (Rice Hospice) is doing is very important. Veterans are a small part of the population, but they make a huge impact. It’s a very proud moment in the veteran’s life and for their hospice program to do this for them is huge.”

To contact Rice Hospice, call 1-800-336-7423 or visit

#RiceHospice #Willmar

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