PeaceHealth photo
Staff of Hospice of Sacred Heart in Eugene take part in a blessing of their new offices.
PeaceHealth photo
Staff of Hospice of Sacred Heart in Eugene take part in a blessing of their new offices.
EUGENE — It took time for the health profession to recognize the needs of patients who are beyond curing.

But now that end-of-life care and hospices are commonplace, the Catholic Church has taken a special role in care for the dying. That's especially true in Oregon, where  the legalization of doctor-assisted suicide prompted Catholic health care — which forbids assisted suicide — to pay even more attention to pain control, psychological treatment, social needs and spiritual care.

Tina Picchi, director of the Portland-based Supportive Care Coalition, has called end-of-life services "a hallmark of Catholic health care."

"Inspired by our rich faith heritage, Catholic health care must be distinguished as a leader in our country providing gold-standard palliative care," Picchi wrote in the January issue of the Catholic Health Association magazine. "Through such care, we believe that God’s healing love is revealed."

Hospice of Sacred Heart, a ministry run by PeaceHealth in Lane and Linn counties, is one of the largest hospices in the state. At any one time, it serves about 175 patients in their own homes. Families can call around the clock for medical aid and pastoral care.  

There are four full-time chaplains, three physicians and dozens of nurses, nine of whom have been working in Sacred Heart palliative care for more than three decades.

Father Noel Hickie has been a chaplain for Hospice of Sacred Heart for 20 years. Here is story from last week: The priest drove west of Eugene for an afternoon visit to a house where a man, a new patient, was dying. When Father Hickie arrived, the wife was in the kitchen making pizza. Her husband would never talk to priests, she explained somewhat bitterly. She was a Catholic and he had forbidden her to practice. But now, she said, her husband could not speak and so the chaplain might as well go see him. Father Hickie went into the room and spoke kindly to the man, who could not respond, but seemed to listen.  

Father Hickie returned to the kitchen and sat down with the wife, who explained the marriage's ups and downs. It grew late, and the priest went to bid farewell to the patient, who, it turns out, had died.

The wife sobbed, saying she loved her husband despite his shortcomings. She had made no funeral plans and did not know what to do. Father Hickie ended up staying late, listening to her, offering words of comfort, making arrangements with a funeral home and planning a funeral.

A few days later, the woman called, brimming with gratitude.

"It's a matter of being in the time and the place," Father Hickie says of his ministry.
The Rev. Daleasha Hall, a Methodist and another Sacred Heart chaplain, says the marvel of a faith-based hospice is the holistic approach that cares for all aspects of patients and families. In addition to medical staff and nutritionists, chaplains see patients regularly, perhaps once a week, more or less as the situation dictates. Chaplains assess what patients value and love and help the dying souls tap inner strengths.

"We hear people ask if their life is worth anything," Rev. Hall says. "We help them to a place where they discover for themselves what their meaning is by asking questions and doing a life review."

Father Hickie tells patients that as death approaches, their job is to be an example and a teacher to survivors.  

The priest says the first principle of hospice is the absolute dignity of the human person, the foundation of Catholic social teaching.

"We feel a need to be not just hospice minded but mission-driven," says Terrance Kinnamon, manager of patient services for Hospice of Sacred Heart.

"Catholic hospices have tried to be sure to really embrace the spiritual side," says Dr. Marian Hodges, a geriatric specialist for Providence Health and Services. For Catholic patients, the Eucharist and anointing of the sick get special emphasis.  

Father John Tuohey, ethicist for Providence, says Catholic moral thought is unique among faith traditions for seeing death as the moment when the body hits its biological end, not a moment God has pre-ordained.

"It allows us to be more relaxed," Father Tuohey says. "God will welcome us when the body wears out. We don't need to worry about what or when God has decided."

Dr. Ira Byock, a professor at Dartmouth and an expert on end of life care, says that for Catholics, having a priest on staff of a hospice and having sacraments readily available is a "deep comfort."

"In addition to medical excellence, Catholic hospices might be more predisposed to provide unabashed tender loving care, which is part of their tradition," Dr. Byock says.