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Steve Jacobsen: The Hospice of Santa Barbara River Continues to Flow with Heroes of Hospice

I invite you to imagine how a river begins, how it flows and what it means.

It can begin when water trapped under the surface of the earth is pressured by unseen forces, and the water seeks relief from that pressure. It looks for an opening — a crevice in a rock formation — and it pushes through, emerging as quietly as a private thought.

More water follows and the stream becomes larger. In time, it encounters obstacles. Some obstacles it simply goes around. The water may choose to confront other obstacles and wear them down; in time, even granite will surrender.

More water rises to feed the stream, and it increases in volume and strength.

Along the way it encounters other streams, perhaps fed from the same underground source. It joins them and becomes ever larger.

Along the way, this river nourishes countless living things — microscopic organisms, creatures great and small; fields of grasses and groves of tall trees.

A spring becomes a stream, a stream becomes a river, and the river flows to the sea. By the time it reaches the ocean, the river of water has become a river of life.

I invite everyone to imagine the history of Hospice of Santa Barbara as something like a river. I invite you to think of this history as a river of compassion flowing towards people in pain.

Before HSB appeared, pressure had been building in the consciences of many people, people who saw how much suffering and isolation was surrounding those who were dying and those who grieved.

I remember Gerd Jordano’s story — how as a young nurse she was trained to tell people who had only hours or days to live that they would be fine. She was taught they were not to be trusted with the fundamental truth of their own mortality. Gerd knew it was not right.

I remember the story of one of our longtime volunteers. She, too, was a nurse. She trained in a veteran’s hospital in Nova Scotia. Her dorm was close to the ward where men were dying. At night she could hear them cry out in pain and loneliness. She was told she should only go there every four hours, and to focus only on giving the pain medication — not to stay and comfort them. In her heart she knew it was not right. There had to be another way.

Cicely Saunders and Elizabeth Kubler Ross were prophets who gave voice to this pain and began to show ways to respond with compassion. The pressure to break free from containment and do something increased. In June 1974, the waters of compassion forced their way to the surface in our community. In that month and year, a group of volunteers in our community joined hands in a circle and said “Let’s get organized,” and Hospice of Santa Barbara was born. It was just the second hospice in America.

In the beginning, there was vision and determination but little money. So from the start, this river of compassion depended on the courage and compassion of volunteers. Extraordinary individuals understood they would need to be the pioneers, the bearers of compassion and support to those who were afraid and alone. Over the years we have been blessed with so many of these volunteers who have become personal bearers of this river of compassion, and at our Heroes of Hospice event on Nov. 1, we honored a woman who has been serving since 1978 — Peggy Polsky.

The spring became a stream, and the stream became a river. It began to broaden its banks to bring compassionate care to more and more people — people with AIDS, grieving children, the rich and the poor.

Along the way, Hospice of Santa Barbara carried with it a very unusual business model. You find the very best people, you give them the support to do excellent work, and then you give away all your services for free. You never bill any person or anyone. This creates a challenge: raising money.

Individual leaders and philanthropists understood the challenge, caught the vision and knew they could make a difference in sustaining the river. Using their time, talents and treasure, along with personal courage and determination, they helped guide and sustain the river’s course — dedicated leaders and philanthropists like another wonderful person we honored at our Heroes of Hospice event, Ms. Linda Seltzer Yawitz.

Many remarkable people continued to join this river. One person who is here in spirit is Gail Rink. Five years ago this month, we gathered to honor her 27 years of transforming work. She impacted so many lives. She taught us all so many things — some of which we can repeat in polite company and some we cannot — but all of it deep and true. Gail, we want you to know your legacy lives and grows stronger.

The HSB river flowed and joined forces with other rivers led by other people. Some of them had an ever-broadening vision of how this river of compassion could be expanded. Gail found someone who shared her vision for what this river of compassion could mean in Cottage Hospital — that was Dr. Michael Bordofsky. Together, Gail and Mike formed a partnership with HSB, Visiting Nurse & Hospice Care, Cottage Hospital and the St. Francis Foundation to create a unique, interagency palliative care service.

As one person said in a note, “Before, all we used to get after a death was a bill.” Mike and Gail and their colleagues changed that. In recent years, this interagency branch of this river of compassion has reached more than 650 families in crisis every year. The culture of dying in the hospital is changing thanks to Mike’s leadership, integrity and plain hard work. And for this, we honor him.

And this river of compassion continues to flow and expand. In 2008, when I followed Gail as executive director, Hospice of Santa Barbara was serving 280 people every month, 55 of them children. This year, the number of people we serve has risen to over 700, with 170 of them being children and teenagers. We’ve created a full bilingual services staff. We’ve established weekly grief support classes in eight schools on a regular basis. And three years ago, we created a new community spiritual care program.

In addition to addressing the unmet spiritual needs of patients and grief counseling clients, we are expanding into skilled nursing facilities. In these facilities, there is often no one available who has the time and training to listen skillfully to someone who sits alone in their room, burdened by the prospect of dying or a lifetime’s accumulation of grief. We are now in six such facilities every week and, we hope, will be adding a seventh soon.

Just think: This river of compassion that is Hospice of Santa Barbara began as a small, determined spring 39 years ago is now a river that flows from our office on the Rivera across town, finds it way through the hospital and — between the eight schools and six nursing homes every week — 14 other sites every week.

Yet what gives the river of compassion greatest meaning is the way it touches and nourishes particular lives. Here are just three examples:

From a family member who wrote us after her sister had died thanking us for the care we gave: “Although the disease could not be cured, she was healed.”

From a member of our support group for people who have lost children: “I don’t know how I would have made it through the last couple of years without our loving group. I have felt so tenderly held in our safe cocoon. ... The depth of our love for our precious children was palpable in every group with a beauty that is beyond words and continues to sustain us.”

And these words from some children ages 7 to 12. They recently came to get help following the death of a relative. In the process, they found that grief was connected to a deep sorrow they carried with them after the death of their family dog. One said:

» When we talk about how hard it was to lose our dog, a lot of people tell us how to feel, or to just get over it. But not at Hospice. It's different here. They really listen to me."

» "Our family was really sad before coming to Hospice of Santa Barbara, and we didn't talk much about our feelings. But now, after coming here, we're the best family ever! We now talk about everything."

The small spring that came forth in 1974 has become a river, a mighty river of life-giving compassion. We are honored to acknowledge three individuals who have been vital to its flow.

For more information about Hospice of Santa Barbara, including volunteer opportunities, click here or call 805.563.8820.

— Steve Jacobsen is executive director of Hospice of Santa Barbara. Call Hospice of Santa Barbara at 805.563.8820 for a schedule of adult and children’s groups, or to make a donation. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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