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Group effort makes hospice house a reality

June 1, 2008
by Maureen Hrehocik, Executive Editor
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Volunteers turn one doctor's dream into peaceful oasis

In a tranquil setting overlooking 9.5-acres of virgin woodlands in Duluth, Minnesota, sits a $4 million, 12-bed hospice house. Inside, original oil paintings from the early 1900s add warmth to its already cozy atmosphere. It is a place where the beauty of nature and the beauty of the human spirit meet to help ease its patients through their final days. Many would say the house is built out of love and determination from a core group of professional and lay volunteers who worked four years to make it a reality.

Patricia Burns, president of the Miller-Dwan Foundation, acted as the catalyst who turned Duluth hospice doctor Michael Van Scoy's dream of having a hospice house in the community into reality. In September 2007, after 10 months of construction, the Solvay Hospice House, a 14,500-sq.-ft. facility, was opened. Since then and through the middle of February, 2008, it has had 54 patients. The Miller-Dwan Foundation, an independent public charity, served as the fundraiser and developer and remains the owner of the hospice house. It has a long-term commitment to the facility and the care provided with another local hospice provider.

How it all started

In 2003, Dr. Van Scoy approached Burns and the Miller–Dwan Foundation about securing a house that could be converted into a hospice house. At the time, there was only one other hospice in the community, St. Mary's Hospice and Palliative Care Program. It was Dr. Van Scoy's dream to have another. Coincidentally, the day before Dr. Van Scoy's visit, the Foundation had been given a spacious home on Lake Superior which Burns thought would work extremely well for the project. A multidisciplinary committee was formed to study the project's feasibility. It included Burns, other foundation board members, hospice professionals, community members, a local architect, a civil engineer, landscape architect, contractor, real estate developer, mechanical engineer, and interior designer. The group volunteered for two years of regular meetings to explore the possible conversion of the home. After much discussion, the group agreed the home would not work for the project and decided to sell it and use the proceeds to build a new structure. Concurrently, a fundraising project was under way to raise $3 million for a 10,500-sq.-ft. hospice house.

Local architect John Ivey Thomas volunteered to attend a national residential hospice conference. He came back armed with information from other hospice facilities on what to do and what not to do, as well as Medicare regulations that had to be considered. Meanwhile, Burns located a 9.5-acre parcel of tax-forfeit land. It took her eight months of “political maneuvering,” but she was able to buy the land at a price the Foundation could afford. (The fundraising committee exceeded its own expectations and raised $4 million.)

Once land was secured, many professional volunteers from the initial committee became paid vendors, such as Thomas, who designed the facility, and Suzi Vandersteen, an interior designer. The exterior and interior design concepts were, again, a group effort. They were shown to hospice nurses, counselors, therapists, hospice physicians, and hospice volunteers (who represented families exposed to hospice care.) In addition, throughout the fundraising effort, Burns says, “We were taking our plans out to the community members who we were asking to invest and, once again, the donor group often had experienced hospice care and was quite outspoken about what they liked and didn't like.” All this input was taken into account in the five-month design process.

Margaret Wolters, director of St. Mary's Hospice and Palliative Care Program, brought years of experience working with hospice programs to the group. “Margaret sat on nearly every committee except the fundraising committee, so she was involved in the exterior design, interior design, and interior furniture choices that helped us create a Medicare-certified facility that met all regulations,” Burn says.

Design goals met

Thomas says all his goals were met in designing the Solvay Hospice House, the first hospice he's designed. “Everyone was happy with the house,” he says. “We wanted it to be attractive, someplace special, and to keep it familiar. Pat (Burns) also wanted it first class.” To help “keep it familiar,” Thomas disguised the medical aspects of the house as much as possible. Light was a central theme and he used skylights to bring the outdoors in. Each patient room also has a patio looking out into the surrounding woodlands. The facility meets Medicare codes and standards. Thomas has also designed nursing homes and he says a key difference with the Solvay Hospice House is that a family member can stay overnight in the patient's room on a daybed.