Carolyn Dobson lightly touched one of the hundreds of nameplates on the brick memorial wall. Each engraved name represents a life, a death, a family left behind.
Stories from the past 28 years flood Dobson’s memory.
She watched patients live with and die from heart and pulmonary diseases, dementia, Alzheimer’s, AIDS and every type of cancer.
She saw families mourn and heal.
She listened to children struggle to understand the loss of a parent, a sibling or a classmate.
The names — there are more than 6,000 of them.
After 28 years, Dobson, 60, the first and only executive director of Hospice of the Valley, will retire in December. Debbie Heard will succeed Dobson as the leader of the end-of-life care, nonprofit organization.
“It still feels like a dream. I have worked professionally for 40-plus years. It is time that I spend time with my grandchildren,” Dobson said. “One of the main things I learned from being with hospice is that time slips away so quickly. Time is priceless.”
On Nov. 16, a community retirement party in honor of Dobson will take place at Hospice of the Valley’s Johnston Street S.E. office.
“One of the reasons Hospice of the Valley has been so successful is because Carolyn has always been there,” said Janet Jenkins, the organization’s first nurse. “Other hospices saw a consistent turnover in personnel and executive directors. It is exceptionally rare to keep the same leader for 28 years.”
Hospice of the Valley’s board members and medical directors reiterated the praise.
“She is Hospice of the Valley,” Steve Hammond, an original board member, said. “She made it what it is today. She will be sorely missed.”
Modest and humble, Dobson shies away from the credit, choosing, rather, to talk about the staff, board of directors, mission and founder.
“There can’t be a story about Hospice of the Valley without mentioning Sandra Barrett,” Dobson said. “Legend goes she went to Decatur General and said she wanted to volunteer in the hospice program.”
Learning no program existed, Barrett organized a meeting of individuals. The then-named Hospice of Morgan County was born.
“We met in the chamber’s boardroom. She told us what hospice was about. I thought it was like a hostel where traveling Europeans would stay for a few days,” Hammond said with a laugh.
“There was no give up in her,” Dobson said. “She was the spark that really got this going.”
If Barrett was the spark, the board of directors used Dobson as the kindling.
Handwritten notes from the first meeting detail the board’s decision to name Jenkins as the nurse and Dobson as the director.
She couldn’t say no — not after Pam Porter.
A month before hospice incorporated, Dobson watched Porter, a close friend, die from metastatic breast cancer. Dobson helped transport Porter to and from the hospital. She sat by Porter’s side. She watched Porter die.
“When Pam was going through this, I thought, wouldn’t it be nice if she didn’t have to suffer,” Dobson said. “At that time I had heard the name hospice, but didn’t really know anything about it. I did have a keen sense that the way Pam died, it didn’t have to be that way.”
But that was 1984 — the beginning of the hospice movement. Only three other organizations in Alabama offered hospice care, palliative care was a rarity and dying at home was unheard of.
“Back then doctors said there’s no more we can do. There was no, ‘How can we make you more comfortable,’ ” Dobson said.
As the executive director of Hospice of the Valley, educating the medical community, fundraising and spreading the word about hospice’s mission would fall to Dobson.
She met with doctors and city leaders, spoke with churches and did presentations for civic groups.
In August 1985, the organization accepted its first patient.
“Our first budget was $30,000. We paid Janet and Carolyn for 20 hours a week, but they were working 60 hours a week,” Hammond said.
“Everybody was basically a volunteer,” Dobson said. “Actually getting paid was a luxury.”
In the beginning, payment was a luxury Dobson willingly sacrificed. Helping grieving families and individuals through death was more important than money.
Hospice of the Valley uses nurses, social workers, bereavement counselors, chaplains and physicians to provide comfort and spiritual and emotional support to the patients and their families.
“People don’t want to die, but we all are going to die. The difference is whether we get to have input in the way we die or we just let the wind take us there,” Dobson said.
Hospice’s impact is beyond calculation, current board member Sam Alfano said.
“Say hospice currently serves 70 patients and each of those patients has three family members. All of a sudden there are 210 people being touched by Hospice of the Valley. There is no way to imagine the calming effect hospice has on families at this incredibly difficult time,” Alfano said.
But it’s not just 70 patients and it’s not just end-of-life care.
Since 1985, Hospice of the Valley has served 6,420 patients and expanded its mission.
To better serve the public, the agency organized the Community Bereavement Center. The center hosts support groups, sends counselors to schools experiencing a loss and organizes Camp Hope, a one-week summer camp for children dealing with the death of a loved one.
The memories. The names.
“There was one summer when Hartselle lost three youths in auto accidents. That was a very tough time. That was when we really saw the need for a grief component to hospice,” Dobson said.
The Community Bereavement Center runs groups for parents who lost a child, survivors of suicide, children coping with grief and individuals dealing with the loss of someone from homicide.
For young children, Hospice of the Valley introduced Spinoza Bear. The stuffed animal used cassette tapes and songs to help children cope with grief.
“There was a boy in Speake who died. I remember that Spinoza sat in that little boy’s seat for the rest of the school year,” Dobson said.
With more than 6,400 names and 6,400 stories, Dobson struggles to choose one memory, one moment that stands out the most.
“It was monumental when we accepted our first AIDS patient in the late 1980s. At that time we didn’t know how it was transmitted or the precautions we needed to take,” she said. “I had never been more proud of the board. They looked at the mission statement that said we would provide care and support to anyone facing a serious illness or death and we took the patient on.”
Dobson introduced north Alabama to hospice, got the agency approved for Medicare, served on a statewide committee responsible for writing the Alabama Hospice licensure law, sat on the Alabama Hospice and Palliative Care Organization’s board, and created a private duty nursing service. The service helps train nurses and provides funding for unreimbursed care. Last year, Hospice of the Valley’s indigent care totalled $200,000.
“Out of everything, I think what matters to me the most is knowing that we have touched so many lives,” Dobson said. “I like the thought of helping people in their time of need. People will remember what happened when mama died minute by minute by minute. I tell the staff we have one shot at it. We can’t go back and do it better.”
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