Hospice 'heroes' needed

Hospice patients are waiting for volunteers.

<br/>Hospice patient Barb Balas loved her home on the lake and her animal companions. With the help of Hospice staff and volunteers, she was able to stay there after being diagnosed with congestive heart failure. Contributed/ Becky Nunnelee<br/><br/>
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Hospice patients are waiting for volunteers.

Social worker Aaron Majors is the CHI St.Joseph’s Health Hospice Care volunteer coordinator. He said the biggest barrier for most people who consider volunteering is time.

“There’s no minimum commitment,” he said. “The average volunteer probably spends an hour a week and that can be evenings or weekends.”

Volunteers who go into homes and assisted living centers help with a variety of things, such as reading to patients, writing letters and running errands.

The greatest need for volunteers is from December through April.


“Most volunteers go south for the winter, leaving patients without the extra support they need,” he said.

Referral to hospice is made by a doctor. Medicare, Medical Assistance, VA insurance and private insurance help cover the cost.

“A terminal diagnosis is required, but the patient does not have to be actively dying and there is no limit to how long someone can be on hospice,” he said. After visiting the hospice patient and family, Majors matches them with a volunteer.

“I have quite a few patients waiting for a volunteer,” he said. “There are only three volunteers active right now. The other 13 left for the winter. We have some volunteers going through the onboarding process, so that will help.”

Volunteers are central to the hospice program. While the program requires a 5% match of patient contact hours, there are many volunteer opportunities that can be done in the office or from home.

“I’d also love to find people to come in to play music in homes and in assisted living facilities,” he said.

Barbara’s story

Barbara Balas lived on Little Sand Lake. She loved nature and was active in both the animal shelter and historical society in Park Rapids before being diagnosed with congestive heart failure in 2017.

Balas wanted to stay in her home as long as she could, but had no family in the area. That’s where hospice stepped in.


Her only child, Becky Nunnelee, lived in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

“The doctors in Minneapolis gave mom six weeks to six months to live, but she surprised them,” Nunnelee said. “She was not a candidate for surgery, so we knew it was just a matter of time. She wanted to be in her place on the lake as long as she could.”

Living so far away, Nunnelee said knowing her mom had the support of hospice gave her peace of mind.

“A nurse and social worker visited weekly,” she said. “There was also a home health worker who came once or twice a week to vacuum, do household jobs, help her take a shower and do her laundry. hospice staff would call and give me weekly updates on how mom was doing and what she needed.

“The hospice staff in Park Rapids were amazing, and I still keep in touch with them. I was a plane ride away, so I was really dependent that they were doing what mom needed and she was happy.

"She was not the type of person who easily let people into her home, but she made friends with them and loved them.”

In December 2020, Balas was no longer able to stay in her home and moved to an assisted living center in Kentucky.

An area resident adopted her dogs and she was able to bring her cat to the living center. Balas passed away in March 2021.


A volunteer and friend

Balas only had one hospice volunteer: Don Haagenson.


“Don is one of the greatest guys in the world,” Nunnelee said. “He took her to the grocery store as long as she could handle that. When she couldn’t do that any more, he got the groceries. He did little things around the house, fed the birds and put ice melt on the paths. He was her ‘Mr. Fixit.’

“They’d visit over coffee. Don and Barb often talked about history, politics and genealogy. He was there the day we left for Kentucky. I still stay in touch with him.”

Nunnelee described Haagenson as “a super giving guy.”

“During the period of COVID when they suspended hospice volunteers visiting, he still came on a personal basis,” she said. “They had become friends and he knew that she was alone and couldn’t do it without him. He was willing to do that for her. He was a godsend.

“The hospice team were more than just caregivers. They were friends who gave her an excellent quality of life. My hardest decision moving mom was taking her away from them. I can not put in words how important hospice staff and volunteers were to my peace of mind, especially being so far away. I trusted them totally and was so grateful to have them.”

Decades with hospice

Haagenson first became involved with hospice while in Fargo in the 1980s. After working as an intensive care nurse for three years, he accepted a job with a pharmaceutical company.

“I was missing contact with patients and families, so I decided to join Red River Valley Hospice,” he said.

The Haageson’s moved to the Park Rapids area in 2006 when his wife Deb got a job at the hospital. He started with Park Rapids hospice in 2011.

Haagenson, a veteran of the Marines, has served 36 hospice patients in Park Rapids and 24 in Fargo.

He has also been part of ceremonies that recognize veterans in hospice care with a blanket and pin in honor of their service to their country.

Haagenson said he and Barb enjoyed spending time together. “Her dogs, Mutt and Jeff, would sit in my lap when we visited over coffee,” he said. “She would share lots of stories.”

During the years he volunteered to help Balas, he said she and her daughter became like family.

“I told Barb I wasn’t about to leave her high and dry because of COVID,” he said. “I wore a mask, followed guidelines and visited on my own once or twice a week as a friend.”

After Balas passed, Haagenson worked as a mask and symptom screener at the hospital in Park Rapids. That job is ending soon, and he already contacted hospice for a new assignment.

Haagenson said hospice provides training on end-of-life care and how to support patients.

“Just having someone visit is a comfort to them,” he said. “It’s a fulfilling feeling to be able to help them and their family. Respite is a big part of it. I had a client who needed to go to town every once in a while. I would have coffee and visit with her husband, who had Parkinsons, so she could do her errands.”

He said volunteering with those who are nearing the end of life isn’t something to be afraid of.

“Once you sit down with a person that has a terminal illness, they’re easy to talk to,” he said. “I feel fortunate to have good health and it feels good to be able to help those who don’t and serve

How to help

Anyone 18 and older interested in becoming a hospice volunteer who works with patients can receive more information by calling volunteer coordinator Julie Dickie at St. Joseph’s Health 218-616-3197 or Majors at 218-237-5744. Training is provided.

In addition to visiting with patients, volunteers are needed to help with fundraising, administrative jobs and the bereavement support program.

Checks may be sent to CHI St. Joseph’s Health, 600 Pleasant Ave., Park Rapids, MN, 56470. Specify on the memo line that the donation is for hospice.

Lorie Skarpness has lived in the Park Rapids area since 1997 and has been writing for the Park Rapids Enterprise since 2017. She enjoys writing features about the people and wildlife who call the north woods home.
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