Julia Brennecke’s dad was 85 years young, living at his home by himself, and “very independent,” according to Julia. However, over about a six month period of time, his family started to notice waning strength and increasing unsteadiness on his feet.
At the end of January 2011, it became apparent that Frank Brennecke could not be at home alone anymore, in spite of his autonomous spirit. One evening he experienced a bad fall, with no one to find him until morning. After a series of tests, which showed a brain tumor, the family realized that it was going to be necessary to have someone in the home with him around the clock. With family members living in town, initially it was manageable, but although he had mobility with a walker, it became increasingly hard to take care of him. “I am a nurse, and because of that, I knew what I wanted for him, and I could see we couldn’t do it,” says Julia.
Since Frank had served in the United States Navy in the Pacific at the end of World War II, he was being followed by the outpatient physicians at the Dorn Veterans Administration (VA) hospital, located in Southeast Columbia. He had been going to the VA for years, so when Julia went with him to discuss treatment options with his doctor, it was a familiar and comfortable place. The doctor mentioned the hospice unit located inside of the Dorn VA, and Julia remembers, “I filed that information in the back of my head so we could pull it out if we needed it.”
“My father was quite lucid, until the end of his life, so he became concerned with who was going to be with him each day. It reached a point where that concern was sort of wearing on him, and we were struggling just to put together his basic needs.” Julia expresses the relief the family felt when Frank finally was admitted to Warriors Walk, the hospice unit the doctor had mentioned to them previously.
“Warriors Walk took care of him physically, so we then became much more available for his emotional well-being, and that was the blessing, that we could just sit and talk with him and pray with him,” she says.
Opened on Aug. 3, 2009, Warriors Walk is a warm, peaceful and hospitable 10-bed unit, which surprises anyone who has a fixed idea of the term “hospital.” With a solarium and a roomy kitchen, there is plenty of space for families to visit, share special dinners with their loved ones, and generally move about freely just as they would at home. The veterans are young and old, male and female. The commonality is that they all qualify for hospice, which is comfort care when aggressive, curative treatment is no longer effective during the last six months of a patient’s life.
(L to R): Sheila Brown, Susan Zourzoukis, Debra Layer and Carolyn Peterson, staff at Warriors Walk, stand in front of a photo of a Korean War veteran embracing an Iraqi veteran.
“It was good for him to know he wasn’t going to a nursing home but that he was going to the VA, and that was familiar to him. My father’s experience at the Dorn VA was very positive, and the thing that struck me again and again was the mission that the staff has to serve those who had served our country. The staff went out of their way to ask him about his years of military service,” says Julia.
Always the survivor, Frank made a smooth adjustment after arriving on the unit. According to his daughter, “He was a kind man and always enjoyed flirting with the nurses. He would say, “Why, you are just prettier than the last one!’”
Julia says that the entire family is grateful to each staff member of the Warriors Walk, but she remembers program director Debra Layer, NP, being a wonderful support as well. “She brought a lot to the experience and integrated it into her practice,” says Julia.
Debra explains how the unit’s name originated: “Warriors – We welcome warriors to this unit, which is defined as any service member who signed up to serve their country and give the ultimate sacrifice. Walk – They are not alone; we are walking alongside them in their journey towards end of life.”
“Here, the caregiver delegates the physical care to our staff so that loved ones are freed to provide the emotional care they would often otherwise be too exhausted to offer,” says Debra. “These veterans answered their country’s call when it was needed — we want them to know now that their country is there for them.”
Sheila Brown, a nurse at Warriors Walk, and Harold Bloom, a patient, play a game of cards in the unit’s solarium.
Many of the staff members at Warriors Walk also have served in the United States military, and at least half of the staff have hospice experience. Every detail of a patient’s stay reflects this, giving a special touch that often is needed.
Cheryl Addison, a nursing assistant on the unit, explains the unique approach that culminates the patient’s stay at Warriors Walk. “At the time of death, we present to the family a nameplate with the veteran’s branch and years of service, as well as the handcrafted afghan that was used throughout their stay.” The staff and family also pause to have a Ceremony of Remembrance. For this, they gather together at the beautiful landscape mural donated by artist Suzie Shealy, mother of fallen soldier Sgt. Joseph Derrick. A miniature golden footprint with the vet’s name and date of death is placed on the mural. The family chooses where the veteran’s “footprint” should be placed, kind of like a visual final resting place. Everyone is given the opportunity to share memories that honor their vet. It proves to be an incredible time for both the family and staff together to pay tribute to the veteran and his or her life.
Immediately after a patient’s passing, family and friends gather for a Ceremony of Remembrance at this mural.
There are many other aspects that make this unit unique. For example, once death becomes imminent, hospitality baskets are provided so that the family does not have to leave the bedside for snacks or other essentials. And the entire family is encouraged to come; with updated shot records, even a special pet is considered an essential visitor.
“Bereavement starts the day they come to this unit,” says Susan Zourzoukis, LMSW, the unit’s social worker. “The vets have made some important decisions and are looking at a loss of routines, plans and roles. The goal of our care is to bring them to the point of saying, ‘I am ready.”
“For a lot of these vets, death and pain are the enemy,” explains Susan. “It’s like they have an ‘I have to be on watch’ mentality, but we let them know upon arrival that we have their backs and are keeping watch for them, so they don’t have to.”
The staff seeks in every patient interaction to bring honor to the dying process. “When we thank our veterans and families for their service to our country and for choosing Warriors Walk, we acknowledge that they are warriors,” says Debra. “It’s vital for a veteran to grieve their losses and show their emotions as they prepare for impending death. We never encourage families to give up hope, but their hopes change, from the hope for a cure to the hope for a peaceful death for their veteran.”
Though the terms “hospital” and “hospice” are derived originally from Latin and do imply hospitality, today’s hospitals are often perceived as anything but welcoming. Often patients and families may report feeling intimidated, lost and fearful. But visiting the Warriors Walk is like strolling into a surreal medical experience. The quiet, peaceful hallway seems to defy all that is normally associated with a modern medical center. There is value placed on the whole patient, including emotional and spiritual aspects, as well as relationships with loved ones. The pace in the hallways is unhurried and welcoming. And the staff seems as though they feel it is a privilege just to be at work.
Debra summarizes beautifully: “Uniformly the staff says what a privilege it is to sit with a vet when they are dying, and to know that our faces are the last ones they see before they see the face of God.”