Hospice focuses on individual, family

On retired Col. Robert Prince's wall in his Augusta home is a faded letter from March 1961 from the attorney general of the United States.

"I am advised that this officer has not hesitated to work late at nights and long weekends on frequent occasions in rendering invaluable assistance to this department in connection with important litigation," the letter reads in part. It is signed simply, "Robert F. Kennedy."

Though his health is failing, it is important to Mr. Prince, 88, that he stays in his home with the reminders of a full and interesting life.

"I don't want to go into a nursing home," he said.

Because of home services from Trinity Hospice, he doesn't have to. The program, one of the first in Georgia and the Southeast, will celebrate its 30th anniversary this month.

Hospice started in Connecticut in 1974 and spread across the country during the next several years, said Jon Radulovic, the vice president of communications for the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization.

"Thirty years would certainly put (Trinity) right there at the beginning," he said.

The local program, which began after a community forum in 1978 with a speaker from Connecticut hospice, was provided through St. Joseph Hospital home health services with help from volunteers, said Wink O'Neal, who was among the first volunteers. St. Joseph was later purchased by Trinity. The first patient was admitted in March 1979.

"I quickly learned that people don't have to be old to die," Mrs. O'Neal said. She cared for a 42-year-old mother just wanting to live through the summer to see her little girl get to first grade, a battle she ultimately lost.

It is one misconception about hospice that advocates would like to change: that hospice is only for the very end of life. Hospice is appropriate for patients, often with many months to live, for whom aggressive, curative treatments are no longer a viable option, Mrs. O'Neal said.

"Hospice is not giving up," she said. "It is letting go of what is not available anymore, what is not realistic. And putting the focus on aggressive treatment for comfort."

And it can actually work out better for the patient, Mr. Radulovic said. A 2007 study found that patients in hospice actually lived longer on average than those receiving conventional care.

It succeeds because it focuses on the needs of the family and the individual patient.

For Mr. Prince, it is a chance to proudly display his letter and tell the story of one of his greatest cases as a litigator for the Air Force. He was defending the government from cases arising from a midair collision in 1958 over Las Vegas involving an Air Force jet and a United Air Lines plane. Mr. Prince was scheduled to rotate out of the Pentagon in 1961 with the cases still pending when Mr. Kennedy wrote to the secretary of the Air Force asking him to intervene.

"I shall consider it a personal favor if you will arrange for the continued availability of Lt. Col. Prince" to work on the case, Mr. Kennedy wrote. He proved to be right: Mr. Prince prevailed after he got the judge up in a plane to show him how quickly the collision would have happened.

The judgment saved the government millions.

Still, the praise in the letter tickles him.

"I knew I was good," he said, laughing, "but I couldn't believe I was that good."

And the chance to tell that story again, in his own home, is the point of hospice, said Mrs. O'Neal."It's living in the face of dying," she said. "As long as you can keep an atmosphere of life, there is life."

Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213 or tom.corwin@augustachronicle.com.

HOSPICE'S HISTORY

From its more humble beginnings in 1974 in the U.S., hospice has grown to more than 4,700 programs across the country, and last year 1.4 million patients received hospice care, according to the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization.

"Hospice is probably one of the most significant grassroots health care movements of the 20th century," spokesman Jon Radulovic said.