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Hospice marks 30 years of helping dying, living

Community Hospice of Modesto has come a long way since its founders, two nurses who studied for bachelor's degrees at CSU, Stanislaus in Turlock, each put $100 of scholarship money into a fund for hospice services in 1979.

That seed money and a lot of selfless labor grew into an organization that serves more than 1,000 terminally ill patients a year in Stanislaus and part of San Joaquin County, includes a hospice house, thrift stores and an administrative center, and has 175 employees and more than 300 volunteers.

The hospice will mark its 30th anniversary May 30 at the home of Bob and Marie Gallo.

While attending CSUS, Mary Jean Coeur-Barron and Kathy Oberg discovered they had a mutual interest in end-of-life care, which had been introduced in the United States five years earlier. Coeur-Barron (now Mary Jean Thompson) says her inspiration came from her first husband.

"My husband practiced hematology and oncology, and for him it was so hard to see what happened to patients when it came to the end of treating the disease and there was nothing else he could do," she said.

As the proposed hospice service was considered by local health care providers, a consultant was brought in to assess the community; he concluded that Modesto wouldn't support a hospice.

Thompson and Oberg ignored his advice, forming the nonprofit Community Hospice in November 1979. The board was made up of representatives from five local hospitals and home health agencies, plus two physicians and two nurses.

Everyone donated their time, including Dr. Robert LeFevre, the medical director.

The first patient

Like Thompson, Oberg was married to a doctor, and they tapped their husbands' checkbooks to cover some expenses. They used Green Stamps to buy folding chairs for their first offices on the second floor of the First Christian Church in Modesto. A local business donated a truck for hauling hospital beds to patients' homes.

They were trained at Hospice of Marin, and their first patient was Modesto resident Vivian Adamson. Her husband and her only daughter, Carol Brooks, didn't know what to expect when they learned the breast cancer had spread through Adamson's body.

Brooks recalled she knew nothing about hospice and was skeptical. But she was won over when Oberg and Thompson spent hours in her parents' home, teaching them to care for Vivian and making themselves available 24 hours a day.

"That was a big relief for us," said Brooks, who was taught to give pain medication so her mother would be comfortable. "It meant everything to us to know she didn't have to suffer. ... It was clear that we learned from them and they learned from us."

The nurses tried not to get overly emotional, but Oberg cried on the day of Vivian's death and Thompson wrote a poem that she read at the funeral. The family asked volunteer coordinator Trudy Murphy to officiate at the graveside service.

Able to pay the staff

The hospice services were free and the staff relied on community donations to pay the bills. They organized a 10K run and got lucky when a Southern California medical equipment company owner, who went to dinner with the Thompsons, offered to match the pledges, which came in at $11,114. With the $22,000 and change, they started paying hospice staff.

The primary goal of hospice is to enable patients to live as long as possible, free of pain and despair, and to die with dignity when the time comes.

By 1983, Community Hospice expanded to serve patients in Oakdale, Riverbank, Escalon and Salida, and was serving all of Stanislaus County by 1989.

Thompson was executive director until 1984, when she resigned to help her husband battle heart disease. The hospice had five nurses, 20 to 30 volunteers, and enough money in the bank to operate for three months, she said.

In the following years, Community Hospice evolved into an organization caring for a larger number of patients and with a broder range of services.

In 1988, the hospice merged with Project Via, an organization that focused on counseling and support for people who were grieving.

Community Hospice continued to run on donations, fund raising and volunteers, as the board debated whether to apply for Medicare reimbursements and fall under the regulations of the federal program.

The hospice crossed that bridge in 1992. Today, Medicare payments account for 85 percent of its $17 million annual budget.

Another source of funding is the Hope Chest Thrift Stores, the first opening on McHenry Avenue in 1993. Today, there are two more in Modesto, one in Ceres and another in Oakdale.

Recession helps thrift stores

During this recession, people are shopping at thrift stores in record numbers, and the Hope Chest stores are on pace to bring in $300,000 this year, compared with $150,000 to $200,000 in a normal year, said Harold Peterson, chief executive officer of Community Hospice.

The hospice has gone from serving 30 to 40 patients daily in 1995 to 200 per day this year.

More than 90 percent of the hospice patients receive care in their homes. But the Community Hospice Foundation was established in 2001 to raise money for another option.

Thanks to major donations from John and June Rogers, and Jean and Leonard Cohen, one of the founders of what became Tenet Healthcare Corp., the 16-bed Alexander Cohen Hospice House was built in Hughson and opened to patients in March 2005.

The Haig and Isabel Ber- berian Patient Services Center was completed in north Modesto the same year, with facilities for administration, bereavement support and clinical staff.

Jay Mahoney, a consultant for the hospice industry, said many hospices are smaller than Community Hospice and some organizations have larger budgets. By offering no-cost services such as bereavement support, the Modesto-based hospice has done well in establishing itself as a community asset, he said.

"They are doing it very well, and what they can provide back to the community makes a difference," he said. "It's part of their responsibility as a not-for-profit. It's important to earning that tax- exempt status."

Last year, Community Hospice added an outreach program for people who care for an elderly family member. From 85 to 100 people have attended the Lunch and Learn events held each month on topics such as navigating Medicare, veterans health benefits or legal issues.

Peterson, the CEO since 1995, said Community Hospice is a true nonprofit that might net $100,000 one year and lose $200,000 the next.

Medicare reimbursements are certain to be an issue in the next five years, as the government program is constantly under pressure to control costs, he said.

He noted that most of the 4,700 hospices in the country are for-profit businesses.

Fund raising continues to be a major focus because the reimbursements don't cover the costs of patient care, he said.

"We don't talk a lot about financial issues when we are with the families," he said. "It's what sets us apart from a lot of other organizations."

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at kcarlson or 578-2321.