KODIAK, Alaska — Kathy and Ted Nussbaum, who helped to establish Hospice and Palliative Care of Kodiak and who will be leaving the island in June, were honored in January.
Domonique Ruiz, volunteer coordinator at HPCK, said that the organization is one of “neighbors helping neighbors.”
“We’re an all-volunteer organization, which makes us proudly different to most hospice facilities,” she said. “We don’t charge any of our clients or families for services we provide.”
The mission of HPCK, said Ruiz, is to join the journey of those facing life-threatening illness or loss. The goal is to address the emotional side of terminal illness, rather than the clinical side. HPCK aims to reduce the fears of the patient and offer comfort to both them and the family. As such, volunteers will take on all kinds of roles based on the needs of the patient. This can be anything from running errands, to offering companionship, to simply being a listener, or even catching and bringing fresh fish for dinner.
Kathy and Ted Nussbaum moved to Kodiak in 1997. They are, respectively, a nurse practitioner in the palliative care department of Providence Kodiak Island Medical Center and a teacher at East Elementary. Prior to their arrival, Kathy Nussbaum was a hospice nurse in Oregon. She said that when they arrived in Kodiak, there was no hospice and the community was less than receptive to addressing terminal illness and death.
“Back 20 years ago, people didn’t easily talk about death here. It was not a common thing,” she said.
In 2010, Fair Wind Players put on a local production of the play “Wit,” which tells the story of an English professor who is dying of ovarian cancer. Each performance was followed by an audience discussion with the cast of the play. The Nussbaums attended one of the performances and stayed for the discussion.
This, said Kathy Nussbaum, triggered a decision.
“I was thinking … I think it’s time! How are we going to do this?” she said.
Soon after, she ran into Dr. Jen Webster at the grocery store, and the pair decided to throw a community meeting, which ended up being attended by about 30 people.
“They were thinking we needed hospice, and a lot of people in town had been wanting that for a long time,” said Ted Nussbaum. “Kathy’s the kind of person who says, “Let’s just do it!”
Consensus was that hospice facilities were needed in the community.
In 2011, work began to set up HPCK as nonprofit organization, with Kathy Nussbaum as the board’s first director. It took nearly two years of organizing before HPCK served its first clients.
“I’m kind of the idea person, and Ted supports all the way along and does everything he can,” said Kathy Nussbaum. “He’s a great handyman, so he fixes things for people.”
Though he’s not professionally involved in the field, Ted Nussbaum has been a volunteer for hospice for several years.
“I’ve done building ramps for people who need that and also visiting people,” he said. “Just visiting and listening I think is a very important thing.”
Kathy Nussbaum said that, for one dementia patient Ted Nussbaum would go and sing for hours.
“It was amazing because he couldn’t remember a lot of things, but when we got into singing, he could remember a lot of the verses better than I could,” he said. “That was a special time. Every time I went to him, I was glad I did.”
Ted Nussbaum said that, in his opinion, Kodiak is a very caring community, which is why HPCK has been so successful.
“I think that’s something that people value here in town and that people readily help out with,” he said. “It’s great just to be able to listen to the stories of people that we serve and to hear what it’s like and to bear some of their challenges with them.”
Kathy Nussbaum explained that her job as a nurse practitioner at Providence means she offers an overlapping, but quite different service than those who volunteer for HPCK.
“My visits have a really specific goal. I’ll go to the home and we’ll talk about how things are going physically, psychology, emotionally. … Mine’s very agenda-oriented; theirs is not,” she said. “The volunteer will go to someone’s home and be there for support, for whatever the patient wants – whether they want someone to read to them, someone to take them someplace, whether they want to write letters …”
In June, the couple is moving to Anderson Island in Washington in order to be closer to family.
“We knew we needed to have water and a community that cares about each other,” said Kathy Nussbaum. “It’s hard to leave Kodiak.”
The couple says they will continue to work in hospice and palliative care facilities.
“We’ll do end-of-life care wherever we go, because that’s what I do and Ted is a really great volunteer as well,” she said. “I hope people see it as an honor to help care for people at the end of their life. As soon as you’ve gone through it with a family member, you see the need for it.”
The couple expressed huge gratitude at being honored, though both noted that they never did any of it for the recognition.
“I appreciate it a lot, it’s nice to be honored. Not often in life can a husband and wife be involved in something together,” said Ted Nussbaum. “She’s taken a more dominant role; I think of myself as an assistant honoree. . We appreciate all the volunteers and encourage more people to volunteer and support it both with their energy and money as well. We’re not ones for the limelight, but we’re happy to help the hospice out in any way we can.”
Information from: Kodiak (Alaska) Daily Mirror, http://www.kodiakdailymirror.com