June 11: The Nation’s First Hospice Facility

 

 

This day in Connecticut history marks an American medical history milestone: the greenlighting of the first hospice care facility in the United States and the realization of nurse Florence Wald’s lifelong dream of providing comprehensive, compassionate care for patients with terminal illnesses.

Florence Wald at her Branford, CT home.

Having spent significant time in hospitals herself as a child due to a chronic respiratory ailment, Wald wanted to become a nurse from an early age, firmly believing that nurses had a duty to care for patients’ physical and mental well-being throughout every stage of their lives.  After earning multiple bachelors and masters degrees in physiology, sociology, and nursing, Wald taught at Rutgers before becoming director of Yale University’s Mental Health and Psychiatric Nursing Program and, a few years later, Dean of the Yale School of Nursing.

In 1965, Yale welcomed Dr. Cicely Saunders, director of St. Christopher’s hospice in England, to speak about palliative end-of-life care for patients, a talk which inspired Wald to create a similar institution in the United States. Two years after Saunders’ talk,  Wald resigned her post as Dean in order to devote her time and energy to researching and establishing a hospice care facility in Connecticut, patterned after Dr. Saunders’ facility in England.

On June 11, 1974, the Connecticut Commission on Hospitals and Health Care approved construction of the country’s first hospice facility in Branford, simply known as “The Connecticut Hospice.”  Co-founded by Wald and a number of community health leaders, the Connecticut Hospice built a $2.6 million dollar facility in Branford that provided compassionate end-of-life care for patients, regardless of their income or ability to pay (a philosophy the facility still follows to this day).

The Connecticut Hospice quickly gained a national reputation for its pioneering techniques in palliative care, and as a result, the hospice movement spread like wildfire across the United States.  Less than six years after the Connecticut Hospice first opened, the federal government’s Medicare program started reimbursing patients for hospice care — an irrefutable sign of how quickly Wald’s “patients first” hospice philosophy had been accepted by American medical professionals.  A longtime resident of Branford, Wald continued to advocate for compassionate end-of-life patient care, especially for terminally-ill prisoners, in the later years of her life.  In 2008, she passed away at the age of 91 in her Branford home and is widely considered to be the founding mother of the American hospice movement.

Further Reading

Dennis Hevesi, “Florence S. Wald, American Pinoeer in End-of-Life Care,” New York Times

Florence Wald,” Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame