A new $10 million hospice house planned for the Northeast Georgia Health System was inspired by the Community Hospice House in Merrimack, New Hampshire, where Diane Stephens’s father received his end-of-life care.
Now, she and her husband, Charles, want to replicate it here in Northeast Georgia.
“Ever since then, Charles and I have been supportive of that hospice program,” Stephens said. “We donate to them annually, and when I became involved here, I thought, ‘We have a hospice program here, but we don't have a hospice house.’ And that's kind of how it all came to fruition.”
She and her husband recently donated $5 million to NGHS — the largest donation in the organization’s history — to build its first and only hospice house.
The health system currently has a seven-bed hospice unit on the fifth floor of its Gainesville hospital. The new facility will replace that unit and have 16 beds initially, though it will be designed for a full capacity of 25 patients, the limit allowed by regulations, said Susan Bennett, executive director for Hospice of the Northeast Georgia Medical Center.
The need for hospice care is growing as the population ages in the state and across the nation. The 65-and-older population has grown by a third, according to national census data, and in the last decade the median age has increased by nearly a year. “The baby boomers are coming,” Bennett said.
The new hospice house will not only increase the number of patients the health system can serve but will also improve the quality of care they receive.
“It's like being in somebody's private home,” Stephens said. “It's peaceful, it's quiet. You can come and go any time of the day or night.”
Diane Stephens recently spoke to The Times at NGMC in Braselton about why she and her husband decided to make the donation.
Stephens volunteers and works the front desk for four hours a week at the NGMC in Braselton, where she and her husband live. In October of next year, she will be appointed president of the Auxiliary Board, which oversees and provides leadership to more than 600 volunteers in the health system.
“I am kind of a volunteer lady,” she said, though she is quick to share the spotlight with her slightly more modest husband, Charles. “We’ve had a wonderful married life. And because we never had children, we're just very, very close. We’ve done everything together.”
Without any children to inherit their fortune, the Stephenses decided to spread their wealth through philanthropy. Her husband, who worked for Lucent Technologies before retiring, has invested wisely and sold some of his stocks to fund the donation.
“We thought about it long and hard, and we decided we wanted to do something for the community,” Stephens said. “It's wonderful to be able to do it.”
Before retiring, Stephens had spent three decades working for the Red Cross — from hurricanes to plane crashes, she showed up readily and often to lend a hand to those who needed it most. She spent six weeks in Oklahoma City after the bombing in 1995, for example, and jetted to Washington, DC, when the Pentagon was struck by a hijacked airliner on 9/11.
She remembered a young girl — and her support dog — whose mother had died in the Pentagon attack. The girl was staying with her father in a five-star hotel along with other families who had lost loved ones.
“This little girl was about this tall, beautiful little girl,” she gestured. “This little girl was eating an apple, and she’d take a bite and then give the dog a bite — it was just heartwarming the things you see.”
Officials said the next step is finding a suitable piece of land that is about four to six acres. They are looking for land in between Braselton and Gainesville but are open to other locations, given that NGHS serves 14 counties. And the remaining $5 million needs to be raised before construction commences.
“We actually have a lot of people in our community that have expressed interest in supporting the hospice house,” said Chris Bray, president and chief development officer for the NGHS Foundation. He said they have received two financial commitments totaling $750,000, though he did not disclose the donors because the deals have not been finalized yet. Bray provided a tentative rendering used to estimate the cost of the hospice house, though it is by no means official or set in stone.
“It's going to be wonderful for our families and our community,” Bennett said. “We just really want it to be a journey that they'll remember, a positive experience in such a difficult and sacred moment in their lives. We want to make it the best that it possibly can be.”