Thursday, June 28, 2007

Samira Beckwith: defining the quality of life

Originally published in the Florida Weekly

Death and dying. While most people would rather change the subject, this is the reality that Samira Beckwith faces every day. As the president and CEO of Hope Hospice and Community Services, Beckwith explains that their mission is to help people fulfill their life's journey and decide how they will spend time in the last chapter of their lives.

Depressing? Maybe to some people, but Beckwith explains that depression would indicate there is nothing that can be done to help. And while she and her staff are filled with sadness at each passing, Beckwith says they remain inspired by creating ways to help each person, their families and the community.

"I love what we do," says Beckwith. "It's really important that we make a difference for each person and their families."

"Plus, we have great volunteers who look at what we can do," continues Beckwith. We can give tender, loving, supportive care. We can make each person's days more worthwhile with art classes, music therapy, special birthday parties. Recently, we had an experience where one woman was not going to live to see her granddaughter's wedding. So they changed the date and we had the wedding at her bedside - it was a very beautiful and moving experience. We think of what we can do to improve the quality of those final days."

Influenced by her own experiences, Beckwith has an unusual insight into people who are not expected to survive. Diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease at the young age of 24, she spent hours in hospital waiting rooms with other patients left in the dark about their procedures and other aspects of their treatments. She wondered why they were all being treated like anonymous numbered patients, instead of like people, and thought about how she might help. As ill as she was herself, this was the turning point when she brought her personal and professional lives together -- an experience that has kept her fueled all these years.

Graduating from Ohio State University with a Master's of Social Work, Beckwith worked in a hospice house in North Dakota for 10 years before interviewing in Fort Myers in 1991. Under her leadership, Hope Hospice now serves more than 1,400 people each day and she has led the development of three facilities: Fort Myers, Cape Coral and Bonita Springs. Past president of the Florida Hospices and Palliative Care Organization, Beckwith now serves on the organization's executive committee. She has also been the recipient of many regional and national awards, including being named one of Eckerd's Top 100 Women in the U.S. (2000).

Beckwith's focus on care extends beyond the individual and his or her family to the community at large. She explains how Hospice provides bereavement counseling to employers and how they reach out to clergy to be available to their congregations.

"How a person spends the final chapter of life depends on how both family and business associates will cope. Our grief counselors meet with groups at work or with school counselors if a child is involved - we are even called to crime scenes when law enforcement needs extra help. We touch people's lives in many different ways."

Beckwith credits wonderful volunteers and supportive board members with their ability to help so many in such a caring way and their flexibility as the role of Hospice changes in our society.

"We want to stay ahead of the needs and understand what's coming," says Beckwith. "This subject used to be very hush-hush, and there is still a lot of discomfort in expressing what people want, but baby boomers want to have a say in their last days - they want to have a sense of control."

This has resulted in developing different ways to deliver care, and listening to each person to determine their needs. With families so spread out, fewer people want to be home alone or to be a burden to their loved ones in their last days.

"I am passionate about our work, helping people define how they will spend their time," concludes Beckwith. "I am lucky to have this opportunity. The lesson I have learned? We often can't choose what happens to us, but we can choose how we respond."