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For Kristina Wright-Peterson, serving the patient at the end of life can be a celebration, too

Seasons Hospice's new executive director says the core of hospice is meeting the needs of patients.

Kristina Wright-Peterson
Kristina Wright-Peterson, the new executive director of Seasons Hospice, on Monday, April 4, 2022, in Rochester, Minnesota.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — For many, the word “hospice” conjures feelings of dread and foreboding.

It signals the end — or the beginning of the end. Contemplating the end of our lives or of those we love is not something we generally do until we find it thrust upon us. And so, until that moment, we avoid the subject.

Kristina Wright-Peterson, recently named the new executive director of Seasons Hospice in Rochester, succeeding Beverly Hanes, who worked there for 24 years, sees the matter differently.

For those who have experienced hospice, either as caregivers, family members or nurses, an entirely different attitude emerges. Death, like birth, is a stage of life — not something necessarily shrouded in fear. The end, dare we say, can be celebration of a life well lived, just as the beginning signals hope.

Wright-Peterson didn’t start off life wanting to be a hospice director, but life and the loss of a family member began that journey for her.

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How did you get into hospice?

My father died from leukemia when I was nine. And at that time, hospice and palliative care were not offered. It was never mentioned to us. And so, my mom and I cared for him at our home on our own. It was obviously a life-changing experience.

So, when I got into college and adulthood, my mom and I were looking for volunteer work that we could do together. There was an ad for volunteers that were needed at Seasons. So we decided to start volunteering in hospice.

What did you do?

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We started off by just helping out in the office. We would do copying, putting files away, whatever the staff needed that we could take off their plate. Then, the longer that we were there, we started being patient companions. When patients were feeling lonely or needed help with something around the house, we would get paired up with them.

Does it take special quality to be a hospice care nurse or volunteer?

I think it really does. I think you have to be OK with death. You have to be comfortable with it and also appreciate the important milestone that it is in a person’s life.

We put a lot of focus and celebration into the birth of life. New parents go through classes, there’s a gazillion books you’re supposed to read, everybody’s giving you advice. But when it comes to the end of life, it’s kind of like this void that people don’t tend to talk about as much. And so that leaves the person and their support system on their own. That’s what makes hospice so wonderful is because we’re able to come forward and fill that void.

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You use the word celebration. Most people regard death — and maybe their own death — as something to dread. Is that what hospice is about: Celebrating a life well-lived?

It should be related to what the patient wants, the experience they’re wanting, and what the family is wanting. And I think for many, we see that as wanting to have a celebration, wanting to be surrounded by family and friends. Now, that doesn’t mean that’s the case for everyone by any means. But the core of hospice is making sure that the patient’s needs and desires are the number one focus.

What have your hospice experiences informed you about death?

I think it is a stage of life that needs to be observed and prepared for, and at times celebrated as much as the beginning of life. It can be a very moving experience; it can be a very hard experience. We need systems in place to support that.

What’s really remarkable, too, is that it is such a different experience for every individual and every family member. And so hospice staff and volunteers really have to be nimble and able to step in quite literally into any scenario.

I recall several years ago doing a story about a woman in hospice who wanted to play the ukulele? Is that an example of how hospice enhances life?

Absolutely. Whether it’s learning a new skill or having the time to connect with individuals or being able to go visit some place that you haven’t been to in 30 years, those are the things that hospice can do. I had one patient who loved dancing with his wife. It was a memory that he clung to. It wasn’t something he had done in years. So our music therapists team made him some CDs of all his favorite dancing songs. So he was able to sit and listen and talk and relive all of those memories.

What does the executive director of Seasons Hospice do?

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It really is the support beacon to the entire organization, making sure that our staff have the resources and tools and support that they need to provide the best possible care. It’s a lot of work to provide hospice care, not just with the skilled nursing that we have available, but our wraparound services, working with Medicare and billing entities. It’s a huge undertaking.

What is a common question you get about hospice?

How do people pay for it? It sounds expensive. That’s where we really work with individuals and figure out, based on their age and their insurance, so much of it can be covered at times. So really trying to not let those scary questions about finances be a barrier.

What’s one of the biggest challenges you face in hospice?

Like everyone else, its workforce. We need to retain our excellent staff that we already have, and we need to recruit more staff to be able keep up with demand.

Asked & Answered is a weekly question-and-answer column featuring people of southeastern Minnesota. Is there somebody you'd like to see featured? Send suggestions to news@postbulletin.com .

Matthew Stolle has been a Post Bulletin reporter since 2000 and covered many of the beats that make up a newsroom. In his first several years, he covered K-12 education and higher education in Rochester before shifting to politics. He has also been a features writer. Today, Matt jumps from beat to beat, depending on what his editor and the Rochester area are producing in terms of news. Readers can reach Matthew at 507-281-7415 or mstolle@postbulletin.com.
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