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A place to live and a place to die

Caramie Schnell
Matt IndenA photo of Maxine Miller is on display in the hospice room named in her honor at the Vail Valley Medical Center.
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Maxine Miller came to Vail in 1993 to live. And live she did, up until the very last of her days. Surrounded by her closest friends and her son, Dax, Miller maintained her “wicked” sense of humor until she died in September of 2004. She ate ice cream and chocolate, requested lattes and drank wine. She put on glamorous clothes and had parties with her friends. She fought fierce Scrabble games, she watched movies and she listened to books on tape.

She lived.

“We tried to give her a good death because she had lived such a wonderful life,” said Miller’s close friend, Darlene Daugherty.

When it became clear that Miller, 64, wasn’t going to survive the breast cancer ravaging her body, her friends rallied together and vowed to make her final days the best they could be.

Their philosophy was very similar to the philosophy behind hospice programs around the country, as well as the local Vail Valley Home Health and Mountain Hospice, part of Vail Valley Medical Center.

“We don’t talk a lot about death with the patient or the family, our emphasis is on helping them to live the best life they can with the time they have left,” said Chris Huber, manager of Home Health and Hospice.

Miller’s friends put their lives on hold to take care of their friend until she died. During that time, they say they experienced first-hand how difficult it is to watch a good friend die. They also realized how badly the Vail Valley needs a place where the terminally ill and their caregivers can get the support they need.

“We said, look something has to change,” Dax said. “This valley is getting older, it’s not just a transitional town anymore, it’s not just ski bums who can blow out to their old hometown when they get sick. There isn’t another place that people can go when they get sick. This is it, this is home.”

After Miller died, her friends rallied together again, this time in memory of their friend. Within a year they raised more than $77,000. With that money they partnered with the Vail Valley Medical Center to donate a room in the hospital to the specific purpose of hospice care. The room is called the Maxine Miller Room.

“We were aghast at the lack of information and help there is in this community for people that are dying,” Daugherty said. “We were overwhelmed with our task and we thought, this can’t happen again.”

Mamie Curry’s family created their own hospice room at the hospital when Curry became terminally ill.

Curry, 56, originally went to the doctor because she thought she’d gotten a hernia from moving furniture, something she did often in her profession as an interior designer. About three months later, in February of this past year, she received her actual diagnosis: advanced colon cancer.

Curry’s family worked closely with the local hospice chapter and near the end of her life, she was admitted to a room at VVMC. That might not have been the case had the hospital been at full capacity, according to her daughter, Kellie Ricca.

“It definitely would have been harder if that hadn’t been the case. I think it’s great that they’ve made a room at the hospital available for hospice patients,” Ricca said.

VVMC staff even allowed Curry’s family to decorate her room with rugs, pictures and plants in an effort to make her more comfortable. The designers of the Maxine Miller Room had the same idea in mind when they began work on that room. The room features built-in cabinets for more storage, a refrigerator, dresser, flat-screen TV and comfortable seating for family and friends. The decorating style, including the colors, fabrics, mirrors and light fixtures were chosen with the comfort of the patient at the forefront, to make things feel more home-like.

After Miller’s doctor told her friends she was dying, they decided to take her to one of Miller’s favorite places: a working cattle and flyfishing ranch near Kremmling owned by close friends Jay and Molly Precourt. Her friends took turns driving to the ranch, an 80-mile drive one way, to take care of Miller.

“It took at least three people, 24 hours a day (to take care of her),” Daugherty said. “We’re not nurses, but we did the best we could to care for her.”

After a few exhausting weeks, Miller’s friends decided commuting back and forth was too much and so they brought her to Barbie Allen’s home in Lake Creek. Allen, another close friend of Miller’s, took turns with Dax, Daugherty, and a slew of other friends taking care of Miller around the clock.

“We just did shifts, we had a calendar on the wall, and a notebook of her medications,” Daugherty said. “At the end, we became so exhausted by the continual process of caring for her. Hospice visited, but you just get a few hours from them, they would just come and help bathe her or converse with the doctor.”

Miller was at Allen’s home for about two-and-a-half weeks before the group decided she needed more care than they were able to provide.

“We finally realized we could not take care of her anymore,” Allen said. “We couldn’t get her into the wheelchair; we couldn’t help her anymore. Then she went back to the hospital, she was there for about a week before she died.”

Miller never spoke about her imminent death. Her friends and son say her optimism never wavered. The Maxine Miller hospice room was not Miller’s idea. But it’s a picture of Maxine, her stylishly cut silver hair, her vivid green eyes, her vibrant face, that adorns the room named in her honor at VVMC.

“At her funeral service we asked that no one send flowers, but to instead donate money to the (Maxine Miller) fund,” Daugherty said. “Everyone – Dr. Eck and the hospice nurses were so excited that something was going to be done.”

Hospice becomes an option for an individual after their physician has said that they have a life-limiting illness, Huber said. At that point, hospice staff goes in, usually to the patient’s home, and helps manage the patient’s pain. Hospice also helps the family with grief and tries to help the patient meet whatever goals they’d like before they die.

“Sometimes it’s a situation where the person wants to go on an ice fishing trip one last time, sometimes the goal has to do with reconciling differences with somebody – they want to repair a strained relationship – we can help with that as well,” Huber said. “For some people, it’s a spiritual thing and they’re worried for whatever reason that they’re not going to go to heaven, our social worker and chaplain can help them find peace, whatever their beliefs are. The goal is that their spiritual needs will be met so they can die peacefully.”

On average, there’s usually five patients working with hospice at any given time, Huber said. Hospice serves both Lake and Eagle counties and is staffed by a combination of paid employees and volunteers. The team is comprised of nurses, a social worker, sometimes a home health aide, a physical therapist and a massage therapist, if needed. There are also chaplains that are volunteers and just regular people that go in to visit hospice patients, providing companionship and respite care.

“As far as the hospice patient room (at the hospital) is concerned, we’ll still provide that team, just in a hospital setting rather than at someone’s home,” Huber said.

Sometimes, Huber said, the patient or the patient’s family don’t want them to die at home. Sometimes they are concerned about the memories it will create and would rather go to the hospital at the very end.

Next to the Maxine Miller Room at VVMC is the room where Miller took her last breath, surrounded by her son Dax and friends who loved her. It is the hope of those same friends that the new hospice room bearing her name will make the last weeks, days and hours easier for those that are dying in the place they loved, in the place they first came to to live, just like Maxine Miller did.

Caramie Schnell can be reached for comment at cschnell@vailtrail.com.


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