Gosnell Memorial Hospice House: 10 years of having a profound impact on how people die

On December 10, 2009, my father took his last breath. I was at his side, along with all seven of my brothers and sisters and our mother. The night before, all but one of us slept in his room huddled together on portable mattresses and recliners. We wanted for nothing because my dad was at Gosnell Memorial Hospice House in Scarborough, Maine. They don’t just care for the dying at Gosnell, they care for the whole family.

When he first arrived, my sister Becky promised Dad she would move right in with him and she did. Some of her memories:

The staff at Gosnell were amazing. They were like family and helped me through what, at the time, was the most difficult thing I have ever had to go through. One thing that stands out the most is how his doctor and his main nurse walked us through every little step of Dad’s journey, and as it got closer they would explain the different changes he was going through so we understood and knew what to expect or look for.

I also loved that If I needed a moment to myself there were many areas at Gosnell where I could go. My favorite place to sit was on one of the window sills, just watching the world go by (one of Dad’s favorite things, too — watching the world go by.)

Oh, and I loved the unlimited cookies that were baked daily by the chef !!

Hospice care Gosnell

Photo by Christine Anuszewski

From dream to reality

Gosnell has been providing hospice care to families like ours since 2007. The dream to build the house had begun several years before.

In early 2000, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation did a white paper on hospices around the country. It ranked Maine 49th out of 50 states for its hospice services. “We said we’ve got to do better than this,” Elaine Brady recently told me.  At the time, she was Executive Director of Southern Maine Medical Center Visiting Nurses. “We wanted to look at delivering services, but also to have a special place for terminally ill people to go to.”

The end result was that two organizations, Hope Garden in York County and Horizon House in Cumberland County, merged to create the nonprofit organization Hospice of Southern Maine (HSM). Three home health agencies — Community Health Services in Portland, Southern Maine Health & Homecare Services in Kennebunk, and Visiting Nurse Services in Saco — also became involved and integrated their hospice programs into one HSM program.

“Instead of a home care agency model that offers hospice services, we wanted to have an agency that only did hospice, Elaine said. “We wanted to bring all of the service and education under one roof.”

Maine Medical Center, Southern Maine Medical Center and Maine Center for Cancer Medicine (now New England Cancer Specialists) also collaborated on the project. In 2004, Hospice of Southern Maine began providing in-home hospice services. Almost immediately, a fundraising campaign was launched to build Maine’s first and only inpatient hospice facility.

Theresa Desfosses and her family donated a parcel of land on Hunnewell Road in Scarborough. “This piece of property was owned by my parents for about 45 years,” said Theresa. “We were going to put in a housing development, but when the opportunity presented itself for hospice, for me, that was a much better use of the land.”

Gosnell Memorial Hospice House

Photo by Christine Anuszewski

Plans were drawn up for an 18-bed facility that would have a home-like atmosphere but provide 24-hour end-of-life care by trained professionals. It was to be surrounded by gardens and designed to emphasize privacy and dignity for patients, family members and friends.

Gosnell Memorial Hospice House

Photo by Christine Anuszewski

In 2007, Gosnell Memorial Hospice House opened its doors and its heart to its first patients. Since then it has provided care to more than 6000 patients and their families.

Gosnell portrait

Photo by Christine Anuszewski

In the living room over the fireplace hangs a portrait of Jim and Peg Gosnell. They had both passed away long before the house that bears their name came to be. It was their children who helped make it possible. When their daughter Annette was approached about making a donation to the capital campaign, her response was, “Is that all you want?” She had been looking for a way to get involved with hospice and was immediately on board with the project.

I understand the burden of caring for somebody who is dying and the fear that you’re going to do something wrong. I also understand that not any one person dies in the same manner and I don’t mean due to disease. I mean what’s important to them, what they need, what they will or won’t ask for, and how they choose to go about it … because there are choices to be made. The work that hospice does is very important.
Annette and her siblings decided to donate a staggering $1 million to the project.
This was a way for us to honor our parents. Growing up there were always people at our house who needed a meal or a place to stay. As far as we are concerned, mom and dad are still welcoming people home.
As significant as it was, Annette downplayed their contribution to the campaign.
It was just the frosting on the cake. They had almost all of their funding. So many people and so much work went into putting this place together and convincing other hospice groups to join. That was so much work.
Dr. Katherine Pope, a Portland anesthesiologist, was a driving force behind Hospice of Southern Maine and Gosnell House. She was HSM’s founding board president and continues to be a fierce champion.
Before Gosnell was built, Maine was nearly the lowest in the nation for hospice use. Only 9% of people eligible for hospice were using it. Today — thanks to the good work of Hospice of Southern Maine and strong statewide support — that number is now up to 45%, right on par with the national average.
Gosnell Memorial Hospice House

Photo by Christine Anuszewski

My dad was eligible for hospice months before he died, but he was afraid to make the call. We were all afraid — because of what it signified. What happened is that after a few weeks, the doctor got his pain under control and he was able to return home. During his stay, he also had many meaningful conversations with the social worker and a chaplain and got to know the wonderful nurses and volunteers. When he had to go back he was at peace. He knew what to expect and above all, he knew he could expect kindness and respect.

Room at Gosnell Memorial Hospice House

Photo by Christine Anuszewski

My brother Bruce didn’t get to spend that last night with all of us, but we know Dad waited for him. Two hours after he arrived, he died. This is Bruce’s memory:

My story begins the day Dad passed away. Near the end, three of us noticed lots of blackbirds filling two trees right outside his window. The moment he passed, all of these blackbirds flew away as if they were taking his soul to his next journey. We talked about the birds and what they meant. Someone pulled up the song “Blackbird” by the Beatles and we quietly sang it as we all walked Dad down the hall of Gosnell House. Hearing the song always brings back a loving moment in our lives, that moment our Dad, a very influential person in our lives, passed on from this life and traveled to his next on the wings of the blackbirds.
I think the biggest gift everyone at Gosnell gives to families, including ours, is that they help bring death out into the open. We all face it, but most of us are reluctant to acknowledge the inevitable, even when it’s staring us down. When you do talk about, it’s surprising how much can get accomplished — from stating your personal wishes to making amends, saying I love you, saying goodbyes. At Gosnell, Dad got the professional care he needed and our family got education and guidance. We all got understanding, nurturing and encouragement. In the words of my sister Mary:
The environment at Gosnell and its staff spiritually nurtured my heart and my mind in so many ways as we were there with our dad throughout his transformation from this life into the next.
Everyone should be so fortunate.
Diane Atwood

About Diane Atwood

For more than 20 years, Diane was the health reporter on WCSH 6. Before that, a radiation therapist at Maine Medical Center and after, Manager of Marketing/PR at Mercy Hospital. She now hosts and produces the Catching Health podcast and writes the award-winning blog Catching Health with Diane Atwood.