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Love Light tree tops hospital for last time
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The Northeast Georgia Medical Center will light its Love Light Tree on Monday on top of the hospital. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Love Light Tree

What: Ceremony to "light" the Love Light Tree, featuring holiday music

When: 7 p.m. Monday

Where: Lanier Park campus, Northeast Georgia Medical Center

Cost: Free; however, donations to the Love Light program are welcome. Proceeds benefit Hospice of Northeast Georgia Medical Center.

Contact: 770-535-3394

This holiday season, take a moment to drive past Northeast Georgia Medical Center and see the "Love Light" tree on top of the building. You may not see it in that location again.

When the North Patient Tower is completed next year, hospital officials will plant a large evergreen tree in front of the new building, where it will serve as the Love Light tree every year.

"The Medical Center Auxiliary recently made a $130,000 contribution to fund a Love Light garden by the North Patient Tower," said Lynne Allen, director of volunteer services. "There will be a terraced area with benches, and it will remind people of Love Light throughout the year."

Allen said a mature tree, about 30 feet in height, will probably be planted this winter.

"We’re so excited about having a permanent tree," she said. "It’s getting harder to find a tree that’s suitable (each year)."

This is the 29th year for Love Light, and usually the hospital has relied on members of the public to come forward and donate a tree from their property.

Katie Dubnik, spokeswoman for the medical center, said this year’s tree was spotted by one of the hospital’s plant operations employees at a gas station on Ga. 365, near the Hall/Habersham county line.

The owner of the business, South Carolina-based The Pantry, Inc., agreed to donate the 30-foot deodar cedar. The tree now stands, decorated, atop the Outpatient Services Building.

The annual Love Light ceremony is scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday at the medical center’s Lanier Park campus.

For the past couple of years, the event hasn’t been held near the actual tree, because ongoing construction work has limited the amount of parking available.

The ceremony at Lanier Park will feature holiday music performed by groups from several local schools and churches. Then Teresa Warren, director of the Hospice of Northeast Georgia Medical Center, will "light" the tree from the remote location.

Proceeds from Love Light benefit the hospice. Allen said last year the project collected a record $185,000.

"The support this community gives to Love Light is just outstanding, and we really thank them for that," she said. "I think people realize what hospice means to the patients and families it serves."

Hospice care allows people with terminal illnesses to spend their last days at home rather than in a hospital.

Donations to Love Light can be made year-round in honor or memory of someone. Contributions can range from $10 for a light, $100 or more for a "star," and $500 or more for an "angel."

This year, the Medical Center Auxiliary has decided to dedicate the tree in honor of the volunteers and staff of the hospice.

"It’s such an honor for them to recognize us," said Sarah Olson, a registered nurse with the hospice. "I’m really proud to be involved in this organization. We try to meet patients’ needs that are not just physical. We have a team of social workers and a chaplain."

Basic hospice services, such as nursing care, are covered by insurance. But the hospice also provides a number of services that are not reimbursed.

"We have started offering massage therapy and touch therapy for patients who could benefit from that," said Olson. "But it’s not covered in our budget, so that’s one area where donations are needed. We’re nonprofit and we don’t spend money lavishly, but sometimes we have patients with special needs."

She said the staff goes to great lengths to make sure that patients do not suffer. "Our focus is on comfort and support," she said. "We do not want anyone to leave this world hurting."

Hospice also offers extensive counseling and bereavement services for the families.

Olson said the only problem with hospice is that most patients don’t get a referral for it until very late in the progression of their illness.

"People often say to us, ‘I wish we had done this a lot sooner,’" she said.

Even with donations and a professional staff, hospice couldn’t work without volunteers. Nurses don’t have time to "sit" with the patient while the family caregiver takes a break or runs errands.

So that’s what Sue Gehrisch does. She’s one of the hospice’s approximately 60 volunteers.

"You’re assigned a patient and you’re with that person (part-time) until they die," she said. "I read to them, talk to them, give food or water, whatever the patient needs. Except the volunteers can’t do nursing care."

Gehrisch is also among a handful of "vigil volunteers." When a patient’s death appears imminent and there are no family members nearby, she is called in.

"I stay there until they pass, so at least they have someone with them when they die," she said.

Gehrisch said the volunteers have a good relationship with the hospice staff.

"All the workers are just so devoted to their patients," she said. "I’m glad to see that they’re being acknowledged (by the Love Light program)."