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MN facility devoted to peaceful atmosphere for dying

T04.02.2017 -- Steve Kuchera -- 041117.N.DNT.SolvayC1 -- Solvay Hospice House patient Patti Erickson (left) and licensed practical nurse Robyn Russell walk arm-in-arm from Erickson’s room to the building’s sun room recently. Solvay opened 10 years ago and is working to raise $2 million for an endowment fund to subsidize patients’ stays. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com1 / 4
T04.02.2017 -- Steve Kuchera -- 041117.N.DNT.SolvayC4 -- A black-capped chickadee sits on a feeder outside the Solvay Hospice House. Workers say sometimes a deer or bird will show up on the patio outside a patient’s room just as he or she is dying. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com2 / 4
T04.02.2017 -- Steve Kuchera -- 041117.N.DNT.SolvayC2 -- Solvay Hospice House patient Patti Erickson relaxes in Solvay’s sun room. Solvay opened 10 years ago and is working to raise $2 million for an endowment fund to subsidize patients’ stays. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com3 / 4
T04.02.2017 -- Steve Kuchera -- 041117.N.DNT.SolvayC3 -- Solvay Hospice House sits in the woods along Duluth’s Bayliss Street. Solvay opened 10 years ago and is working to raise $2 million for an endowment fund to subsidize patients’ stays. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com4 / 4

DULUTH, Minn.—When people suggest to Kevin Rodlund that his job must be depressing, he disagrees.

"It's not sad," Rodlund said. "There's a lot of smiles and jokes up here at Solvay."

That would be Solvay Hospice House, a homelike building on wooded property in Duluth Heights where residents may be infants or very old, male or female, rich or poor — but all, at least in the opinion of their doctors, are in the very last stages of life.

For the past couple of years, Rodlund has been nurse manager at Solvay, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary.

The Miller-Dwan Foundation, which built the facility, is noting the anniversary by beginning a drive to raise $2 million for an endowment for Solvay. The purpose, said Traci Marciniak, the foundation's president, is to ensure the hospice house can continue to fulfill its original mission.

"When we created Solvay it was our intention that it be open to anyone in the community regardless of their ability (to pay)," Marciniak said. "So part of what we do as the foundation is if someone is suitable for care here at Solvay but they don't really have the capacity to cover the entire cost of being here, we'll step in and assist with that.

"We need money to do that."

The facility had its genesis in 2002, Marciniak said, when Jean Whiting called the foundation to offer a gift: her home on London Road, to be used "for some sort of medical purpose."

As if on cue, Dr. Michael Van Scoy, a physician at Essentia Health, came into the foundation's office the next day talking about the need for a hospice facility in the region, Marciniak said.

"That got us on a journey to a residential hospice house," she said.

For several reasons, it wouldn't have been feasible to convert Whiting's home to a hospice facility, Marciniak said. Instead, Whiting agreed to allow the foundation to sell the house and use the proceeds toward new construction.

The facility is owned by the foundation with care provided by Essentia, she said. In its first 10 years, it has seen 1,800 patients.

A look inside

The brick, single-story structure feels nothing like a medical facility on the inside. Each of the 12 spacious, single-occupancy rooms include comfortable chairs, one of which folds out as a bed for the benefit of a loved one. Each has a patio, and the rooms look out into the woods.

The rooms surround a discreet nursing station. A sitting room includes a donated antique grand piano. Another is bathed in sunlight. A nondenominational spiritual center is vented in such a way so that incense or sage and sweetgrass can be burned without affecting the rest of the building. Patients and their families have access to a kitchen.

A small spa was Whiting's favorite room when she became a patient at Solvay House, Marciniak said.

"She wasn't communicating at the point in time she came here, but her daughter Sue talked about when they came here and put her in the tub, which was pretty much an everyday occurrence," Marciniak said. "Sue said her face would just light up."

Whiting died at Solvay on March 3, 2008.

"That's one of those circular things," Marciniak said. "This woman made a really wonderful gift, and she was able in the end to benefit from that."

Marciniak and Rodlund talked about Solvay House recently in the building's dining room, which includes a single, family-sized table. The atmosphere was quiet and calm without the bustle of a typical health facility. That was by design, Rodlund said.

"There's no overhead paging," he said. "There's no overhead beeps and whistles and no alarms and our overhead sound is strictly music. Our patient call light system goes to a pager, so it doesn't have that noise. It doesn't have the look of a medical facility. ... When our volunteers bake, it often smells wonderful, like you're a young person at Grandma's."

Not 'just for rich'

With comfortable furnishings, elegant design and its woodsy setting, Solvay House has the feel of one of Duluth's finer homes. In a way, that's a problem, Rodlund and Marciniak said.

"We've heard over and over from people that, 'Oh, I would have loved to have my mom up there, but, oh, it's just for rich people,' " Marciniak related. "And that's not the case at all. I realize the facility is really beautiful, it's in a very gorgeous location, and I think that prompts people to have a perspective that maybe isn't quite right."

For those on Medicare, the medical costs of hospice are covered, Rodlund said. Room and board are not. That's $300 per day at Solvay, he said. The foundation can cover up to $240 of the daily cost depending on need.

What if someone can't afford $60 per day?

"I don't think that's stopped us from taking a patient," he said.

The $2 million endowment the foundation seeks to raise, along with many gifts members of the community already have given, will ensure care into the future for those who may not be able to pay, Marciniak said.

Patients aren't typically at Solvay for many days, and all are in hospice care, Rodlund said, meaning that according to their doctor's diagnosis, they are in the last six months of their lives. But they fall into three categories, Rodlund said:

• Respite patients are in the hospice house to give their caregivers a break. They can be housed for no more than five days.

• General inpatient care is for symptom management, such as adjusting pain medication, and often is only for a couple of days before the patient returns home.

• Residential care is for those expected to die at Solvay. That's typically seven to 10 days, sometimes much less.

"I think they come too late," Rodlund said. "We've had patients come and expire within 24 hours. And I think that's hard on the patient and the family both. You finally make a decision to make a move, and you're not here really long enough to get the benefits."

'It happens'

The benefits aren't just about medical care for the patient, he said.

"It's the support of that family and friendship or whatever kind of compassion comes," Rodlund said. "We have the staff to do it up here, and we have the time to do it up here."

Family members also can know that their loved one is dying in an atmosphere of peace, Marciniak said.

"You think about your parents, your children, your spouse — you want them to live out their last moments in comfort, in a beautiful place without the stress, and this place does that," she said.

In a mystical way, sometimes even the life surrounding Solvay House seems to recognize that a life has been lived, Rodlund said.

"People will talk about one of the joys they have is looking outside watching birds and deer, and it has happened that as people get closer to the end of their life, those animals show up," he said. "They'll show up and lie next to the room, or if they're on the back wall with the hill you'll see the deer looking up and over. ... I've heard stories of people who have fed hummingbirds at home for years and years and years and then when they pass there's a hummingbird at their window or at their door.

"It does. It happens. And we're in a setting that allows that."

Why the name Solvay Hospice House?

"Solvay" is an Americanization of the Norwegian term "Solveig," said Traci Marciniak, president of the Miller-Dwan Foundation. It means "path of the sun." It was seen as symbolic of the point on people's journeys as they are in hospice, she explained.

It was also chosen as a name that had no previous connection to the region, Marciniak said.

"We were looking for something that was totally unique, so it would take on a life of its own," she said.