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I think angels dwell there

San Diego Hospice care provides a focus on life for the dying


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SHE IS 87 YEARS OLD, an artist, a published author, a single mother (“when that sort of thing was frowned upon”), a grandmother and a social pioneer—she was one of the first women to work as a sales executive with 3M. She came of age during the Great Depression, when, she says, she had “a wonderful time.” She is spirited, curious, diminutive (slender and all of 4 feet, 5 inches tall), gracious, articulate.

She is full of life. And she is dying.

Vailia Dennis was understandably shaken when she received the news from her cardiologist that she had six months to live. “My first thought was ‘How am I going to handle this?’ ” she recalls.

That was more than two years ago, and Vailia is still going strong, trying to make the best of each day she has left. She lives alone in her comfortable home in Rancho Bernardo, her sole companion a handsome little sable shelty named Nicky. They have been together for seven years now, and during that time, Nicky has been by her side whenever possible.

“He’s my little protector,” she says. And so is San Diego Hospice.

Vailia has been receiving hospice home care since she was diagnosed with congestive heart disease in 2004. She is living proof, she says, that there is no limit to how long an individual can receive hospice care. While admission to San Diego Hospice and similar facilities across the country requires a prognosis of six months or less if a terminal illness runs its normal course, a patient can continue to receive hospice care as long as a physician recertifies the six-month prognosis.

“That’s a misconception about hospice,” Vailia says. “People think that it amounts to setting a date with death, that it’s a matter of giving up hope. And the opposite is true.”

She has had extensive experience with the hospice philosophy. An aunt, an uncle and her brother all were recipients of hospice care. “I truly believe in San Diego Hospice,” she says. “I think angels dwell there.”

And a fine dwelling for angels it is.

The campus setting is idyllic: a high bluff overlooking Mission Valley and the glistening Pacific just a few miles to the west. Towering eucalyptus trees bend in the breeze, which carries the briny scent of seaweed and seashells and the mammoth indigo folds of the sea. The air is rife with life. But a visitor here might spy the sign at the entrance—San Diego Hospice—and think, “So, this must be a dispiriting, funereal place where people come to die.”

Think again.

“Our focus is on life and living and a firm belief in hope,” says Dr. Charles von Gunten. “In hospice care, you can’t define curing as your main professional goal. We may not be able to change the course of an illness, but we can make what’s left of life more livable, more meaningful, maybe even enjoyable.”

There are certain parts of life most of us prefer to keep in the shadows of our subconscious. Deep-seated phobias and well-founded fears, perhaps. Regrets, possibly. Past misdeeds, almost certainly. Death and dying, to be sure. Yet there are countless people—ordinary people of every stripe—who live each day they have left with a terminal illness such as cancer, end-stage heart disease or AIDS. In San Diego County, there are more than a dozen organizations assisting the terminally ill. Framed by the term “hospice,” they provide compassionate care for adults, children, even infants, who are in life’s final stages.

The focus of hospice care is rooted in the belief that each of us has the right to die pain-free, and that friends and family deserve to have the support they need during and after the death of a loved one. The emphasis is on comfort and caring, not curing. Hospice is not intended to hasten death, nor is it designed to prolong life.

Von Gunten is the medical director for the nationally recognized Center for Palliative Studies at the nonprofit San Diego Hospice & Palliative Care in Hillcrest, one of the few hospice-hospitals in the nation. A nationally recognized figure in the field of pain management, Dr. von Gunten radiates enthusiasm and a deep desire to get out his message. He personifies the confidence and buoyancy that is the spirit of hospice care.

“This is not all about doom and gloom,” he asserts. “We never give up hope. On the contrary, our goal for patients is for them to live as well as possible as long as possible.

“There is so much we can do,” he says, taking in a long, deep breath. “So much.”

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