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Dying with dignity

SUMMIT COUNTY – When Summit Cove resident Tom Belanger, age 58, realized he wasn’t going to heal from lung cancer after a year and a half battle, he chose to die with dignity.

He and his wife, Judy Belanger, started a two-month home hospice program with Bristlecone Health Services last summer to prepare for his death, which came in September.

“In the last three or four months (of his life), he realized he wasn’t going to heal, and his dearest wish was to be at home,” Judy Belanger said. “It was all about choice and decision. Our goal was Tom’s comfort and dignity. The most important thing was the ability to have my husband well cared for, with dignity, in the comfort of his home. The second most important thing was the support I got.”



Hospice volunteers prepared the couple for what is a natural part of life – dying – by discussing the emotional, spiritual and physical aspects of death and bereavement.

“It’s a way to give individuals peace before they die,” said Shelley Michell, Bristlecone director of operations. “They’re able to get absolute care – people to stay with them and people to help with the fear. It’s really about giving them dignity at the end and caring for the needs they have.”



One visit from a hospice chaplin changed Tom Belanger’s spiritual outlook, opening him up to a deeper journey, his wife said.

Volunteers also helped Judy Belanger with practical situations, including administering medication, setting limits with visiting family members and knowing what to expect during the dying process.

“For me, if I know what’s going to happen, it keeps the panic away,” Judy Belanger said. “Tom was able to communicate until the last three days. The nurse prepared us when he was getting close to death. At that point, it was like, “OK, I have a friend who can guide and direct me.’

“They took what was a very tragic event and made it a very powerful, spiritual experience. We were all just a team. Help was a phone call away, 24 hours a day.”

Without Bristlecone Hospice, Tom Belanger would have had to enter a hospice program in Denver or spend his last days in a hospital, where staff would have fought to keep him alive and might have bolstered his hope, rather than helping him come to terms with his death, Michell said.

“(Bristlecone) is a jewel,” Judy Belanger said. “You don’t know it’s even here until you need it at the most critical time in your life, and they’re here. I’ll be forever grateful.

“Hospice in a community like Summit County is more personal. You’re going to see your providers in the grocery store. You develop friendships. I think we’re so fortunate. It has helped me heal and know that everything I’m feeling is normal.”

After the individual has passed away, Bristlecone offers loss support groups and other resources for families dealing with grief. At a minimum, volunteers contact family members monthly for two years by mail. Judy Belanger is dealing with her grief with a chaplin and plans on staying involved with Bristlecone, possibly by volunteering in the future, she said.

“I have more of an acceptance that life is not easy, that life is painful and hard, but that pain isn’t terminal,” Judy Belanger said. “You can get past it. You can grow and learn.”

Bristlecone Hospice employs 28 skilled workers and about 20 volunteers, who go through an intense, 20-hour training program. The agency usually has one to three patients at a time, many of whom are young because of the demographics of the county.

The program has provided end-of-life care in Summit County for 20 years by visiting patients’ homes or inpatient facilities and treating pain and symptoms with medical care while helping resolve emotional and spiritual issues.

“Our goal is to diminish the fears that make people reluctant to talk about death and to let them know about the supportive, compassionate and pain-relieving services that hospice provides here in Summit County,” Michell said.

Most insurance plans, as well as Medicare, cover hospice care. For more information, call Bristlecone Health Services at (970) 668-5604.

Kimberly Nicoletti can be reached at (970) 668-3998 ext. 245 or by e-mail at knicoletti@summitdaily.com.


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