Hospice services in York County began in 1985 due to the efforts of community leaders in response to one woman’s struggle with cancer and her desire to remain at home until her death. This group believed everyone in our community deserved hope, comfort, and compassion during their final days, and it was through their work that the region’s first hospice, York County Hospice, was established. We became Hospice & Community Care as our service area expanded to include Chester, Lancaster, Cherokee, Fairfield, and Union Counties.
Elizabeth Pertuset Handy spent time with us recently, recalling some of her hospice experiences as Hospice & Community Care celebrates thirty-five years of service. Elizabeth was the first nurse and Director of Professional Services when hospice started offering services in York County. “When I started, we had a director, me, a bereavement coordinator, an administrative assistant, and a social worker. Father David Valtierra supported us by providing a room at the Oratory for our office, so we all worked in that room together, and the rest is history.”
“We operated out of the room at the Oratory for a while, and then we moved to a little white house on Saluda Street. Within the first week or so, we had ten patients right out of the box. We were the only hospice in York County,” explained Elizabeth. “The first time I had to collaborate with a physician to order narcotics in the home for pain control, he was quite hesitant since he had never ordered the medication to be given in the home. It was all new. We spent significant time educating and meeting with providers in the medical community to talk about managing end of life care at home because the concept of hospice care in the home was so new within our community. So, some doctors weren’t necessarily comfortable at first.”
“One of our first patients, I remember it like it was yesterday. I can remember driving out in the country to see him. I immediately formed a great relationship with him and his wife as I helped them learn about his care. His wife was such a nice lady, and it was the first time I ever had sweet tea! During this time, my husband, our two small children, and I were living in Monroe, NC which made for an adventurous trip down the back roads to Rock Hill every morning! Since I was the only nurse, I was on call 24/7. The daycare I was using wasn’t working out, and luckily Dr. Sam Lowe helped get my kids into the Ann Barron Development Center at Oakland Avenue Presbyterian Church. We eventually moved to Rock Hill. It was a great move because part of what we promised as a hospice was to be with the family if their loved one was dying if they wanted us there. And, most families wanted us to be present.”
“One of the hardest experiences I had, because I was a young mom at the time, was following the death of a young woman in our community. After she died, I went back for a bereavement visit, and their young daughter opened the door and asked if I was going to be her new mom. That was very hard for me,” shared Elizabeth. “Another was a child we were caring for who told me she wanted to be a nurse. So, I gave her my nursing cap. Those were some of the hard cases. But you are just so blessed. You know, I had so many people ask me how can you do this work? And I would tell them I view it as a gift. I have been given the opportunity to recognize the preciousness of life at such a young age, and I have the opportunity to be allowed to spend time with a person who may have limited time, which is a privilege and also a gift. To help someone optimize their health and wellbeing and help support their family is a gift that most would not have the opportunity to share.
“I took care of one of the oldest Catawba Indians. The night that she was in the process of dying, the family called and asked me to come. When I arrived, there were a lot of people present. I was on the reservation, and I remember it was so very dark. I opened up the hatchback of my car, it was total darkness, and as I was reaching for my nursing bag and a dog ran between my legs,” laughed Elizabeth. “I couldn’t see what it was, and I was screaming. I had to just laugh at myself. But when I got to the house, it was a very sacred thing to be a part of with all of the family and others gathered around.
We are so blessed because we are working with people who know, for the most part, that they do not have much time, and they are letting us in their lives. And we are truthfully, blessed to be able to hear their stories, to serve them, and to spend that time. We witness the repair of families, sacred times, reconnections, and the depth of love. Death can be a beautiful thing. I witnessed so many families that have broken apart and then come back together, so it is never too late.”
“My mother-in-law, when she got cancer, she and my father-in-law moved in so she could get treatment at Levine Cancer Center. My friend, who is a doctor, stopped to see her one afternoon because she wasn’t feeling so well and she told me that I needed to be there. We got an appointment up at Levine, and they saw us; it was a Friday at 5 pm, or something crazy like that. And the doctor told her she did not have a lot of time and said he could either admit her or send her home with us. She wanted to be at home. The doctor made a hospice referral, but the nurses told us that there was no one at that time of day who could likely help us. And I said, yes, yes there was. I asked them to call Hospice & Community Care,” said Elizabeth. “And that night, before we even got home, they had the hospital bed there, and we got her admitted that night. She had the pain medicine she needed that night and died in the wee hours of the next morning, and our hospice was there. They didn’t say we will be there in the next 24 or 48 hours. They were there.”
“The people who formed the first group, who recognized the need for hospice in the community, they really fostered getting it started. If they hadn’t taken the initiative, I really wonder what would have happened. This is the only not-for-profit hospice still standing in the community. And it is this county’s Hospice, in my opinion. We were there first, and it has always been the mission of this organization to serve this community. It’s about doing what’s right for the patients and families. And, we did and do.”