MARQUETTE -For more than a decade, Dr. Dan Mazzuchi has gone out of his way to provide assistance to people when they need it most.
In the 11 years since he retired as the CEO of the U.P. Health Education Corporation, he has served as a volunteer at Marquette's Lake Superior Hospice.
"I'm as passionate about it today as I ever have been," said Mazzuchi, 72. "I hope to be an active hospice volunteer for the foreseeable future."
Lake Superior Hospice volunteer Bethany Trieb leads a chair yoga course at the Snowberry Heights Apartments last winter. (Lake Superior Hospice photo)
He estimates that he is one of about 50 volunteers at Lake Superior Hospice.
Erika Hefke is the director of another Marquette hospice organization, U.P. Home, Health and Hospice, and she said volunteers like Mazzuchi make the whole thing work.
"Volunteers are integral," she said. "Nurses are wonderful and home health care aids are terrific, but the volunteers transcend medical boundaries."
Hefke said her organization has about 30 volunteers from all walks of life - college students, middle-aged workers and retired people are all represented. They also meet all needs; Hefke said they have volunteers specializing in pet therapy and massage therapy and volunteering combat veterans who can relate to other vets.
"It really is what makes hospice unique," she said. "They are involved in every aspect of our care."
Both Hefke and Mazzuchi said they would like to see more hospice volunteers. The process of volunteering in a hospice situation, though, takes a special type of person, Mazzuchi said. Though it is tough for the average person, he said it is important to relate to someone with a terminal illness as though they are any other person.
"(It requires) being willing to walk toward a dying person, rather than to walk away, which is what all of us tend to do, especially when that dying person is someone we love. It's too painful," Mazzuchi said. "All of us, as human beings, are at a loss, genuinely, about what we should say. You don't know what to say, so you just say, 'How are you doing?' and basically, you walk away."
Another hurdle is the often negative connotation associated with hospice. Those involved say the service is a great thing that rarely adheres to the narrow constructs of popular belief.
"Hospice is a team approach to aggressive symptom management and comfort care for people with a life-limiting illness," Hefke said. "People think hospice is about dying and it's actually about living and about quality of life."
In fact, Mazzuchi said he has been far from surprised by recent studies indicating that hospice care prolongs life.
Hospice, according to Lake Superior Hospice Clinical Manager Becky Shauver, "adds an extra layer of support. It doesn't take away any family support. it doesn't take away any medical support or any community support they already have."
Shauver said hospice is often thought of as the absolute last care provided to a dying individual.
"I still think there is a lack of community education about the service," she said. "You don't have to be on death's door. You don't even have to be home bound."
To be medically eligible for hospice, it is suggested that a person's physician would not be surprised if they died within six months. Still, Mazzuchi said, a person with a terminal illness can live well for years.
Hospice volunteers can assist people in those situations by helping them do chores, running errands for them, taking them to the store or by just sitting and chatting with them.
In early conversations, Shauver said it is sometimes best to avoid even saying the operative word in order to skirt negative associations.
Oftentimes, she said, healthcare professionals will go to patients whose functional status has declined and ask if they would be interested in a service that would be free to them and would allow a nurse to check on the individual as often as necessary and to be on-call 24 hours per day.
The service, the patients are told, would also allow for volunteers to offer assistance, run errands or just sit and chat.
"If you describe the service and they feel that it meets their needs, you can say it's hospice," Shauver said. "If you say the 'H' word first, people don't hear everything that goes along with it."
Hospice services are covered by Medicare, Medicaid and most private insurance. Additionally, both Lake Superior Hospice and U.P. Home, Health and Hospice provide hospice care free of charge for those without coverage of any kind.
Those interested in learning more about hospice services or about volunteer opportunities in the Marquette area can call Lake Superior Hospice at 906-225-7760 and U.P. Home, Health and Hospice at 906-225-4545.
Kyle Whitney can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250.