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Providing care with dignity

​Kodiak hospice program fills need in community

When John Finley was diagnosed with cancer, he made a not-so-common decision: No radiation, no chemotherapy. He wanted to treat himself at home.

The decision might not be typical, says the 73-year-old lifelong commercial fisherman, but it allows him to be where he is most comfortable – at home, with his cat named Bear and surrounded by the things that make him feel most at ease.

Finley is mostly on his own. His grown son Locke, also a commercial fisherman, helps when he’s home but that’s not often.

“I was in really bad shape,” Finley says, recalling the days leading up to his diagnosis. “I was hurting, and I couldn’t walk very far. I didn’t know if I was going to need any help or not, but I knew I wanted to be home.”

That’s where Kodiak’s Volunteer Hospice Program stepped in. Funded in part by Providence Health & Services Alaska, Hospice & Palliative Care of Kodiak is a growing group of volunteer caregivers who help those in need.

“Providence has been very instrumental in the startup of Hospice,” said Kathy Nussbaum, Palliative Care coordinator at Providence Kodiak Island Medical Center. Providence spent $58 million on community benefit programs in 2014. Of that, Providence has provided several $50,000 grants to help fund two part-time positions, needed office space, and collaboration between the hospital’s Palliative Care program and hospice volunteers.

Deb Houlden-Engvall joined the hospice program shortly after its inception nearly five years ago. She visits Finley, and other patients, weekly. Her job, she says, is to simply be a supportive presence.

“I just feel that we spend, as a society, so much energy on bringing people into this world,” she says. “I think we should likewise provide as much comfort and care during our final days of life.”

Tuesdays are her days to visit Finley, and Houlden-Engvall brings split pea soup with her. She makes large batches so Finley can put leftovers in the refrigerator for reheating later.

“We just share stories and talk,” Houlden-Engvall says. “I feel like my job is to educate, give comfort and listen. We’re there to say, ‘It’s OK.’”

Finley says he has come to depend on the visits he receives.

“I had never heard of hospice,” he says. “When I got back from Anchorage they came and saw me right away, and everything they said sounded good so I signed up for it.

“I can’t imagine how much worse off I’d have been without them. They fill the void. Friends have a way of not being worth a darn when you have cancer. They don’t want to talk about it.”

Houlden-Engvall says that is normal. Loved ones’ attachments are so much deeper, and that can make it difficult to face a terminal illness.

“For us, we can be that calm presence,” she says. “It’s a deeply personal time when you or a family member are facing the end of life. I feel so blessed and honored that people will allow me into this very intimate time in their life.”