Wisconsin hospice director set to climb Everest for hospice

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An avid climber, Andy has said that taking on the world’s tallest mountain evokes the courage, dignity and determination that describe hospice patients he has worked with throughout his career.

Only five Wisconsin residents and a mere 500 Americans have made it to the summit of the formidable mountain.

The $40,000 cost of the epic journey has been covered by Andy’s brother. Dying of heart disease, he has changed his life insurance policy so every dollar raised in the ‘Climbing for Hospice’ campaign will go toward educating the public about hospice in Wisconsin.

The campaign will also fund the training of hospice staff and volunteers in the ever changing and highly regulated world of US hospice services and programs.

As a hospice nurse over the past 14 years, and now as director of hospice and palliative care at Agnesian HealthCare, Andy has worked with thousands of patients and their families struggling with terminal illnesses.

He hopes that in making this journey, he will draw people’s attention to the benefits of hospice care. For him, hospice is all about a more peaceful end of life journey with as little pain as possible, as well as meaningful goodbyes.

Andy spoke to ehospice about mountaineering, his career in hospice and his plans for the trip.

When did you first start mountaineering?

I started climbing in 1992. I read an article in a travel magazine about a famous guide service on Mount Rainier in Washington State, which was operated by the first Americans to summit Everest and K2.

The article was all about how the company would rent you all the equipment you would need, give you a two day climbing school, and then take you on a guided climb of the mountain. 

A friend and I decided it sounded like a great adventure, so we drove across the country to give it a try. Our team had horrible weather, but I was hooked!

And what drew you to hospice care as a profession?

Looking back at it, like a lot of us I suppose, I think I was led here. 

I was working in home health at the time. I was aware of the hospice program and liked the people I knew. 

I had actually inquired originally about being a volunteer. The director there knew me and asked me if I would like to work in the program as a Registered Nurse. I accepted. Within 2 years, she retired and I became the director.

In what ways do you hope that this project will encourage people to talk about hospice care?

An attempt on Everest – especially from someone from Wisconsin – is still a pretty rare event (I would be the fifth person from Wisconsin and about 500th from the US). 

We are hoping to use the public and media interest from this, and the fact that I am a hospice nurse to quickly transition every conversation from the topic of Mt. Everest to why I am climbing it.

Climbing a mountain is a perfect metaphor for what our patients go through. In the US, we have a huge problem, both in our culture and our health care system, in how we care for people who are dying. 

We often don’t tell them until it can no longer be denied, and in doing so we do them and their families a great disservice.

My goal is to get people talking about how we, as a country, want to take care of people who are dying. 

How does the healthcare system recognize that, despite its best efforts, a person is dying, and change the focus of treatment from how do we keep this person’s body alive one more day to how do we help this person have quality of life and die well?

I want to see us have honest discussions with our seriously ill patients and families about what is happening, in plain language, and ask them, given the situation, what is most important to them? What do they want us to do?

So, it is not so much about hospice itself, it is more about how we take care of people who are dying. If we don’t change that in the US, our system will go bankrupt.

Once you have made the ascent of Everest, what will your next challenge be?  

I have not thought about that yet!!

Is there anyone in particular for whom you are climbing? 

My 54 year old brother, Chris, is dying of heart disease. He is funding my expedition. 

But, larger than that, I am doing this in the hopes that, even if only in a small way, it can get some conversation started about this huge problem we are facing in this country and in many places around the world.

For more information on Andy’s climb and how to support Team Andy, visit http://www.climbingforhospice.org or call Hope of Wisconsin at +1 (800) 210-0220.

Read more on the USA edition of ehospice

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