Today marks a medical history milestone: on June 11, 1974, the Connecticut Commission on Hospitals and Health Care approved construction of America’s first hospice facility. That moment also marked the fulfillment of nurse Florence Wald’s lifelong dream of providing comprehensive, compassionate care for patients with terminal illnesses.
Florence Wald wanted to become a nurse from an early age, having spent significant time in hospitals herself as a child due to a chronic respiratory ailment. Those childhood experiences firmly convinced her that nurses had a duty to care for patients’ physical and mental well-being throughout every stage of their lives. Wald forged a distinguished medical career for herself. After earning multiple bachelors and masters degrees in physiology, sociology, and nursing, she taught at Rutgers University, then became 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. That meeting was transformational: two years after Saunders’ talk, Wald resigned her post as Dean in order to devote her life to establishing a hospice care facility in Connecticut patterned after Dr. Saunders’ facility in England.
The facility, whose construction was approved today in 1974, was to be located in Branford and simply known as “The Connecticut Hospice.” Co-founded by Wald and a number of community health leaders, the $2.6 million dollar facility transformed American health care by providing compassionate end-of-life care for patients, regardless of their income or ability to pay (a philosophy the facility still follows).
The Connecticut Hospice quickly gained a national reputation for its pioneering work 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 began reimbursing patients for hospice care — a sign of how quickly Wald’s “patients first” hospice philosophy had been accepted and implemented by American medical professionals.
A longtime resident of Branford, Florence 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.
Dennis Hevesi, “Florence S. Wald, American Pioneer in End-of-Life Care,” New York Times
“Florence Wald,” Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame