As a business owner, I strive to support the organizations Sabo PR represents. I fly exclusively through the Gerald R. Ford International Airport. I shop and dine at Woodland Mall and with the other retailers and restaurants we represent through the Gaslight Village Business Association. I depend on Warner Norcross + Judd for our legal needs. I bank with a longtime client.
I never expected, though, to need the services of Emmanuel Hospice at this juncture in my life – but when I was told in March that my younger brother, Stephen, would benefit from hospice, I turned immediately to Sara Lowe and her amazing team.
We have provided public relations and communications support to Emmanuel since 2016, helping this nonprofit provider of compassionate, person-centered end-of-life care share the tremendous work it does for patients and families in our community. At the beginning of our engagement, Sabo PR created key messages, which I can quote without peeking:
- Emmanuel begins with the question, “How do you want to live?”
- Emmanuel relies on an interdisciplinary team, with the patient and family at its center.
- Emmanuel strives to honor the whole person, body, mind and spirit.
- Emmanuel recognizes the sacred space families invite them into at end of life.
My initial call was met with caring, concern – and immediate response. Every call I made after that first one was treated in the same way, even those late-night frantic calls where Stephen’s agitation and pain had gotten the better of him and I didn’t know what to do. I did know where to turn – and for that, my family and I are beyond grateful.
For those of you who don’t know, Stephen was born with spina bifida and given a life expectancy of 16. Medically complex, he faced a host of health issues throughout his life, but they seldom got him down for too long. He relied on a wheelchair to get around and, in his final years, a host of nurses and aides to provide the daily care he needed to get up and going.
COVID had sequestered him in a long-term care facility. Like so many families separated by the pandemic, we communicated via Zoom and through windows for 15 months. His admission onto hospice care gave me the ability to see him in person, but after just a few of those visits, I knew I wanted to bring him home for his final days. With Emmanuel as our quarterback and the support of Meca’s Angels, which provided skilled nursing and aide support, and Age-N-Grace, which offered companion care, I was able to do so.
Stephen’s last month with us was punctuated by golden moments – we sat on our deck and listened to frogs and watched for deer. We looked through photo albums and reminisced about our childhood. I made many of his favorite foods – and he sat by me in the kitchen, asking questions as I cooked. We threw the rules out the door when he asked for a gin and tonic at 10 a.m. on a Wednesday morning. We welcomed some of our favorite people for visits. We built a wall of support, posting cards, kid art, letters, poems and other demonstrations of love for Stephen. And I slept by his side for three weeks, just as we did as children, so he would not be alone.
We were not alone – we were never alone. True to its word, Emmanuel Hospice provided a team to support us every single step of the way. From his amazing nurses, Tennille and Sarah, to his aide, Tressia, massage therapist, Joan, music therapist, Miranda, social workers Michele and Brandy, spiritual care giver Sr. Faustina and all the behind-the-scenes folks who answered the phone and provided sanity and support, we were lifted up every day. We received similarly loving care from Amanda, Yasmeen, Kathy and Amy through Meca’s Angels, who treated Stephen with love and respect, even during his crankiest of hours.
When Stephen drew his last breath, I was honored to be at his side – and grateful Tennille and Amanda were with us, Sr. Faustina joining us a short time later. Stephen’s body was washed and prayed over. It was one of the most beautiful, peaceful and sacred moments I have ever been privileged to witness. It was all that hospice could be – and everything I hoped Stephen’s death would be.
The same was not true when my father passed away in 2010 after eight months of worsening health issues. When his Ohio care facility told me he would benefit from hospice, I took their recommendation. I knew nothing about hospice and was stung at the suggestion my father wouldn’t recover. That decision wound up being a huge mistake – my father was at a for-profit facility that steered grieving families to its for-profit hospice arm, which did the minimum, and not even that at times.
I received no calls, no emails and no visits during his final months when I travelled to spend long weekends with my father. On what would be my last visit, Easter Sunday 2010, I called hospice and asked if I should stay – from my reading, it seemed my father had entered the active dying phase. “Oh, no,” said the nurse via phone, “he’s fine. You go home and come back next weekend.”
So I made the five-hour drive home that afternoon, my heart unsure, only to receive a call from my brother the next morning with the request to hurry back. I missed my father’s final breath by 15 minutes.
No one from the hospice agency met us at his bedside. Nor did anyone call in the following days after to check on us. Nor did they reach out over that next year to offer grief support or see how we were doing. “If this is hospice,” I remember thinking, “I don’t get why people find it comforting.”
I returned to Grand Rapids the week after the funeral and vowed to educate myself. Through our initial PR work with Hospice of Michigan, I learned the differences between nonprofit and for-profit providers. I learned what to expect – and what questions to ask. My knowledge of hospice has deepened through our work with Emmanuel, and I had all the information I needed BEFORE I needed it to make a decision that was right for our family.
There are organizations like Emmanuel that do tremendous work in our community without most of us needing to know they exist. Our former client and community treasure, Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital, is another prime example – until you or a loved one has a brain or spinal cord injury, stroke, amputation or other life-altering diagnosis, you won’t need them.
The same is true for the Children’s Healing Center, the nation’s first year-round recreation center for kids with compromised immune systems. Since opening its hyper-clean facility in 2015, the Center and its incredible team have provided an oasis for sick kids and their families to connect, play, rejuvenate and be seen as more than a diagnosis.
Guiding Light performs daily miracles through its no-joke addiction recovery program, helping men lost to alcohol and drugs find a way to recover and reconnect – with themselves, their loved ones and their community. But until you love someone struggling with addiction, or know a child with a life-limiting medical diagnosis or have a friend who’s recovering from a car accident, you may not realize these programs and services exist. But oh, when you DO need them, you’ll be grateful and amazed we have such world-class caring people and programs right here in West Michigan.
I know I certainly am.
The last six months have been incredible – and incredibly hard – as we navigated Stephen’s illness and death. Having a strong team of people supporting our family made all the difference in the world. Thank you, Emmanuel Hospice, for being such a tremendous part of #TeamStephen.