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Hospice was once on hard times

Central Kitsap resident Marge Thorne examines some of the early documents and newspaper clippings dating back to 1979 when Hospice of Kitsap County was incorporated.  On a personal level, Thorne is well acquainted with hospice because her late husband used its services while he battled leukemia. - Photo by Rogerick Anas
Central Kitsap resident Marge Thorne examines some of the early documents and newspaper clippings dating back to 1979 when Hospice of Kitsap County was incorporated. On a personal level, Thorne is well acquainted with hospice because her late husband used its services while he battled leukemia.
— image credit: Photo by Rogerick Anas

Kathleen Grasher’s final request, although simple, was a critical turning point in providing comfort to Kitsap County’s terminally ill.

Central Kitsap resident Marge Thorne points to Grasher’s obituary clipped in November 1979. Circled is the woman’s request that memorials be made to Hospice.

The gesture helped secure the fledgling organization’s foothold in the community and brought in the much-needed donations to supplement income from the world-record challenging car washes and gigantic garage sales.

Thorne fingers through the clippings yellowed with time and chuckles about the group’s goal to wash 4,000 cars to raise money and awareness for Hospice of Kitsap County.

According to its 2001 annual report, Hospice of Kitsap County served 320 patients with an average of 38 a day. This year it looks like that number will edge closer to 50. Its tattered shoestring budget has become an annual budget of about $2 million.

But the now thriving Hospice has not been without its lean times. Were it not for the community’s insistence that high-touch care intervene where high-tech treatment ended, it would not have survived its initial financial struggles.

Thorne is one of the visionaries who 23 years ago helped bring the terminally ill comfort and dignity in their last days. Through the years she has held Friends of Hospice organizational meetings in her living room, orchestrated garage sales and has volunteered for Hospice in respite and bereavement care.

She has seen the group grow from a grassroots community idea with very few patients to an independent non-profit agency that provides, in addition to patient care, grief counseling for children and adults.

On a personal level Thorne enlisted its services as her husband lost his battle with cancer.

It was that fight that initially sparked Thorne’s interest in starting hospice services in Kitsap.

“My husband had leukemia and I knew he would be needing hospice services,” she said.

That was In 1979. Thorne, then president for the Kitsap chapter of the American Cancer Society heard a presentation at an ACS meeting about the hospice concept.

She then presented the idea to Dr. John Lamberg, an oncologist newly arrived to Bremerton. In 1980 he became the Hospice board’s first president following its incorporation. Hospice treated its first patient in 1981.

Lamberg said the hospice concept dates to the Middle Ages when during the the Crusades people who fell ill or were injured were taken to homes where they would die.

“As medicine started to become more technically sophisticated, conventional wisdom told us to go to the hospital for care,” he said.

But in 1970 the book “On Death and Dying” led a resurgence of support for hospital alternatives.

The hospice concept would provide mind, body and spirit care with a host of counselors, volunteers, social workers, medical staff and spiritual guidance. The goal at this point wasn’t to cure the disease, but to comfort the patient.

“When the concept was new, people didn’t know what it was,” Lamberg said.

Thorne had to educate the public as well.

“When they would read hospice they would say ho-spice,” she said emphasizing the o and i sounds.

Hospice care today is in most cases covered by most health insurance and Medicare. But no one is turned away for financial reasons. Slowly but steadily people have opened up the the idea of Hospice as a last option.

Thorne said from day one people have accepted Hospice’s principles, at least in theory.

Sept. 19, 1979 Hospice’s first meeting was held at the Great Northwest Community Room at 5th and Pacific in downtown Bremerton, where about 50 representatives from agencies and organizations attended.

“I can’t say too much about how many people helped,” Thorne said.

One of those people was Kathleen Grasher, whose obituary in November 1979 asked that memorials be sent to Hospice. It opened the doors for others to donate and brought about a new awareness of Hospice to the community Thorne said.

She looks through yellowed newspaper clippings. She remembers attempts at breaking the world’s record for washing cars. Although they didn’t sponge down 4,000 cars that day, events like that kept Hospice afloat.

At the time the state had fewer than 20 hospice programs and the services were not covered by Medicare or private insurers. Garage sales, car washes, and other fundraisers were held to raise the estimated $45,000 needed to get Hospice off the ground and into homes.

Initially under the wings of the health district, who provided home health care nurses, Hospice of Kitsap County is today an independent non-profit agency.

A Medicare certified program, it provides care 24-7 to the terminally ill that have been given less than six months to live.

While a few patients outlive the initial timeline, many more die within days of contacting Hospice. The average patient involvement is 47 days.

But for every person Hospice serves, three more people could qualify for services.

Lamberg calls the leap from hoping for wellness to preparing for death an abyss no one wants to cross.

“It’s pretty natural,” Lamberg said when his patients initially reject Hospice as an option. “It isn’t something people volunteer for or want to do,” he said.

“It’s a very individual choice the patient and family make,” he said.

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