Category: Volunteers

Independence hospice pioneer’s vision becomes a reality

Dorothy Burkhart, second from left, joined longtime friends Kitty Myers and Lorraine Mochal at Cedar Valley Hospice’s Diamond and Pearl Gala celebrating the organization’s 30th anniversary in 2009. While there, Kitty won an auction bid for a skydiving adventure – one she took to the sky on Sept. 26, 2010. She wore her husband, Dick’s orange jumpsuit in honor of him. All three ladies were pioneers in starting Independence’s first hospice. Also pictured are Cedar Valley Hospice supporters Cary Nielsen, Pat and Burnell Haven and Wilbur Nielsen.

Dorothy Burkhart, second from left, joined longtime friends Kitty Myers and Lorraine Mochal at Cedar Valley Hospice’s Diamond and Pearl Gala celebrating the organization’s 30th anniversary in 2009. While there, Kitty won an auction bid for a skydiving adventure – one she took to the sky on Sept. 26, 2010. She wore her husband, Dick’s orange jumpsuit in honor of him. All three ladies were pioneers in starting Independence’s first hospice. Also pictured are Cedar Valley Hospice supporters Cary Nielsen, Pat and Burnell Haven and Wilbur Nielsen.

Note: In December, a plaque was posted in the Cedar Valley Hospice Independence office to pay special tribute to longtime advocate and the founder of the first hospice in Independence, Dorothy Burkhart. Her story is below. 
By Stephanie Abel Hohenzy

Hospice began in Independence with the dream of a mother.

When Dorothy Burkhart held the hand of her only daughter, Lynn, for the final time in July 1978, it changed her life. It bothered her that at the age of 35, Lynn would not see her two children grow or live life by her husband’s side. As Lynn’s main caregiver, it was difficult to watch her body go through the final stages of breast cancer. It wasn’t until she traveled to her Florida home and volunteered for a hospice there, that she learned the value and comfort such a program could offer terminally ill patients and their families.

Upon her return to Independence, she set out on a mission – to start a local hospice. She didn’t want another family to ever have to go through life’s most difficult stage alone. Her son, Brooks, remembers how “fired up” she was, which, he adds, wasn’t uncommon for his mother when she set her mind to something. She started talking to friends and enlisted their help to gather support in the community.

“She went right to the town’s prominent family physicians, Dr. Myers and Dr. Mochal, and their wives and said flat out, ‘We are going to start a hospice.’ When my mother asked for something, you didn’t turn her down,” says Brooks.

Dorothy often went door to door asking for donations but raising money was difficult at first since the concept of hospice was generally foreign to most. Although there had been only a few contributions, in 1982, a Board of Directors was formed. So, in a number of meetings headquartered in Dick and Kitty Myers’ backyard, the Myers, Mochals, Dorothy and others started Buchanan County Hospice. These community pioneers often contributed their own funds at meetings to carry out the work of the new organization.

Thanks to Bob Richards, the administrator at People’s Memorial Hospital at the time, office space was opened for the endeavor. The hospital also provided a hospice in-patient room, which was furnished with a home-like setting thanks to a generous memorial gift from the Orval Shatzer family of Jesup, following his death.

A coordinator was hired in 1983 and the first training program took place in 1984. One year later, the organization cared for its first patient. In the following years, the organization grew, gaining more support. Dorothy then went out and found more resources to begin to train volunteers to help patients’ families. By 1989, they had trained volunteers numbering far more than their patient load. They then started a program called Project Love to provide respite care for the chronically ill – providing caregivers with much-needed support when their loved ones aren’t hospice eligible or ready for hospice.

In 1991, Hospice of Buchanan County was able to look at expanding its offices and services thanks to a bequest from Cecilia (Slater) Pochedly. However, as hospice grew, they realized that more services could be provided to patients if they were Medicare certified. With that in mind, negotiations began with Cedar Valley Hospice, and an agreement was signed in 1992. Drs. Myer and Mochal stepped up again, donating their office building on First Street East, where Cedar Valley Hospice currently resides.

Dorothy remained involved as a volunteer over the years and was a valued donor. She enjoyed watching the hospice she helped start, prosper to include not only Buchanan county but Fayette, Delaware, Linn and Benton.

Since then, over 1,000 families have been served, including Dorothy’s husband, Dwight, in 1996, and Dorothy, who passed away on Sept. 2 at the age of 99.

Brooks and his wife, Hildegard, are so grateful to Cedar Valley Hospice and the support they provided for his mother. Team physician Dr. Duane Jasper was also an instrumental part of the care team.

“Jasper didn’t waste any time, he knew it was the right moment for my mother to be placed in hospice care,” says Brooks. “Cedar Valley Hospice showed up within a few hours. I will never forget our nurse, Jean. She was excellent. The knowledge and caring she had made all the difference for my mother and for us. We knew we could leave because hospice was there.”

Dorothy had struggled with a constant restlessness for weeks. This all changed when Cedar Valley Hospice became involved, says Hildegard.

“The Cedar Valley Hospice Nurse was the only one that could calm her down. It was wonderful,” Hildegard adds. “She advised us how to talk to Dorothy to help bring her peace…telling her that she was going to see her Lynnie, which, when other conversation failed, she would nod and relax.”

“Cedar Valley Hospice takes all the guesswork out of caring for your loved one,” adds Brooks. “We know how it started and have seen them in action…they are the experts…How could it be done any better?”

Dorothy’s dream came true. No family has to be alone at the end of a loved one’s journey and throughout their bereavement. 

Hildegard looks at a photo of Dorothy and a tear rolls down her face, “Lynn would be proud.”

Air Force veteran helps patients, families as Cedar Valley Hospice volunteer

Al Berns has the gift of gab. Al Berns- CVH vet volunteer

As a Cedar Valley Hospice patient family volunteer, Al’s vivacious personality makes for the perfect recipe to brighten a patient’s day.  Not only is he a great communicator but he knows how to listen, which he says, has truly allowed him to feel rewarded as a volunteer.

On a recent fall morning, Al sees a passerby picking small tomatoes off a plant in the courtyard of an assisted living facility near the Cedar Valley Hospice Home.  And although she is a total stranger, within 10 minutes, he’s completely captivated the octogenarian’s attention with stories of the past. He leans in closer to listen to her share some her life’s most precious moments.  The sheer joy on both of their faces after a casual goodbye isn’t something either will forget anytime soon.

It’s easy to see why so many hospice patients and families enjoy Al’s company. During his time as a Cedar Valley Hospice volunteer, he’s connected with so many on a special level during a difficult time in their lives.

“You really get to know how people truly feel about things,” Al says. “They may not have a lot of inhibitions at that time and I think I’m really helping them by listening. A lot of times, we really connect.”

Not sure where to attribute his outgoingness, he talks of his childhood growing up in the small town of West Union. Al was one of eight children in the Berns family, and if he wanted something he had to speak up. But it wasn’t until after high school, when he joined the military, that Al felt his character truly become strengthened.

In January 1965, at the beginning of the Vietnam War, he joined the Air Force. There were “plenty of recruits going in,” says Al. “They came from all over.”

At 20 years old, he admits he was impressionable, but his curiosity never stopped him from sparking up a conversation. Whether it was an Oregon boy who rode in rodeos or a New York City kid, he quickly became everyone’s friend. After basic training, he was stationed stateside, where he worked in ground/air communications.  The three years and eight months he spent in the military prepared him well for life, he says.

Soon after his stint in the service, he went on to work for the phone company for 30 years in Waterloo and in Independence.

“I’ve always wanted to give back to the community and my way, at that time, was being a talker,” says Al. “But one of the keys to communications is being a good listener and getting someone to open up.”

So after he retired in 2002, Al began volunteering with the Veterans Administration. Soon after that, his good friend, Bob, mentioned how meaningful it was for him to volunteer with Cedar Valley Hospice. Having seen how much his neighbor benefited from the program, Al wanted to be a part of “doing a lot of good for people.”

Since he started at the Independence location over a decade ago, he’s helped dozens of families through their end of-of-life journey.

“I do whatever I can to help, whether it’s talking, playing cards or if they need to go somewhere,” says Al. I think a lot of people don’t know how much support they can get from Cedar Valley Hospice. It’s a very trying time and families really do need it then.”

One of Al’s most memorable patients was a Vietnam Veteran who was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.

“Most people at this point don’t have any inhibitions of not saying anything,” Al adds. “But some of these guys are such tough old birds and don’t want to open up.”

One day, Al got a call to take Earl to Iowa City for an appointment. Al put on his best conversation smile, but Earl was fighting it.

“He’s a case I’m still working on,” Al laughs. “But I tell you, when he did open up, he felt better. I’m so glad we could make a connection.”

More than the connections he’s made with patients, Al appreciates the honesty of the people he’s helped and the relationships he’s developed.

“I’ve learned so much about life and myself from these families and I’m so grateful Cedar Valley Hospice is available for families to help guide them through the process,” Al adds.

In September, Al was honored by the Hospice & Palliative Care Association of Iowa (HCPAI) as a valued volunteer. It’s obvious to those who know Al, that his greatest joy is giving back to help others.

“Cedar Valley Hospice is a very valuable program and I’m so glad to be a part of it,” says Al.

To learn more about Cedar Valley Hospice, or if you’re interested in becoming a volunteer, call 319.272.2002 or visit www.cvhospice.org.