Hospice care pioneer receives lifetime achievement award

MARQUETTE – After more than 40 years as a pioneer of comfort, home health and private duty care – founding, in 1973, the first hospice in the state of Michigan and only the third in the U.S. – Cynthia Nyquist was recently honored with a lifetime achievement award from the Hospice and Palliative Care Association of Michigan.

Nyquist is a registered nurse and master of science in nursing, and the president and founder of Upper Peninsula Home Health, Hospice and Private Duty; she has dedicated her career to aiding the ailing and providing compassionate, personal care to those with terminal and life-limiting illnesses.

“I was quite surprised and honored, obviously. I couldn’t believe it,” Nyquist said of receiving the award. “It was just quite overwhelming, almost surreal, because at first I started this in ’73, but in ’79 I was one of the charter members of the Michigan Hospice Association. We were just such a tiny little group and who would have thought that it would have grown to what it is today?”

Home health and hospice work embodies a philosophy of care that incorporates a team of nurses, physical therapists, medical social workers, aides, chaplains and volunteers who, according to the U.P. Home Health website, attend to your daily care, help manage pain, evaluate symptoms, teach exercises to increase mobility or enhance communication – even attend to financial or legal matters and help you explore the thoughts, emotions and questions that accompany a long-term illness.

And all of it is from the comfort of your home. “You are choosing to surround yourself with the people, the scenery and all the treasured memories that mean the most to you,” the organization says in its “Living Philosophy.” “You’re surrounding yourself with the rhythms of home that bring healing and comfort. You’re focusing on your life and the many ways it’s woven into the rich fabric of family and friends.”

For Nyquist, one of the biggest misconceptions is that hospice care is about people dying.

“I have to tell you it isn’t (difficult). It’s so rewarding,” she said. “And that’s not just a cliche. Hospice is about living. Too many people still today think the word ‘hospice’ and they think death and dying. And it’s not! Because you receive a diagnosis of a life-limiting illness doesn’t mean you start dying. And in fact, hospice is about showing you how to live. People (often) have life-limiting illnesses – it’s just not cancer. It might be a heart disease, it might be a respiratory disease, it might be a muscular disorder – but hospice comes in and helps empower you and your family. Helping you live to your fullest. And that’s why it’s so rewarding. The biggest thing I want to say: it’s not about dying; it’s about living. Period.”

But care for the ill wasn’t always so centered in sympathy and empowerment, as Nyquist learned firsthand. Breast cancer took her mother, Harriet Swanson, at age 30; she died alone (her room at St. Luke’s Hospital, now Marquette General Hospital, was behind the laundry, because her screams so disturbed the other patients). Nyquist was only four years old.

“She was missing from our life,” Nyquist said. “And there were several children of us – I had a brother and a sister, and we … couldn’t figure out where our mother went.”

Fifteen years later, Nyquist lost her adoptive mother, Geraldine Swanson, when the 38-year-old woman was diagnosed with esophageal cancer that then spread to her lungs. She also died in pain, alone, at St. Luke’s; none of her six children were allowed to visit her.

“At that time, our society just put people in the hospital, basically isolated them from their families and really didn’t talk about what was going on,” she said. “And I realized there had to be a better way – had to be a better way for families to be able to deal with this.”

These experiences, common practice at the time, frustrated Nyquist. After she was turned down, in 1969, from St. Luke’s School of Nursing – because she was married with a child – Nyquist was accepted to and attended Northern Michigan University’s nascent bachelor of science nursing program.

During an independent study and research project in which she hoped to learn how to improve the way people with these illnesses were cared for, Nyquist came across the word “hospice.” She’d never heard of it; neither had any of her mentors or advisors.

“The more I found out, the more I knew that this is what we needed,” she said. “And it just really has grown from there. I was young and naive enough to think that I could do it.”

Nyquist learned that only a few years before, Dame Cicely Saunders had established St. Christopher’s Hospice in South London, England, thereby giving birth to the physical, emotional and spiritual palliative approach marking modern hospice care. After several years of spirited correspondence between herself and Saunders, Nyquist, still a nursing student, began working with NurSec – a small in-home nursing service started by then-dean of the School of Nursing Margaret Rettig, one of Nyquist’s mentors. Rettig and her colleagues allowed Nyquist, and eventually a small, all-volunteer staff, to start providing hospice-type care to some of their patients.

Nyquist’s efforts, and those of other hospice pioneers, have had and continue to have a tremendous impact on the health care industry.

“They understand hospice so much more,” she said. “They will allow families to be in the hospital, if somebody needs to be in the hospital. There is no restrictions any longer when they come under a hospice program. We can have families up there and they can be part of their loves ones’ lives.

Nyquist said that while people do occasionally die in the hospital, the “vast majority will die where they choose, which is typically in their own home,” she said. “And so that is a big thing. Where before, everybody died in the hospital, under very isolated circumstances. That is one achievement that we’ve accomplished with hospice, which is major, in the last 40-plus years … which is a godsend.”

Over the past 40 years, what Nyquist called her “life’s commitment” to hospice care continued to blossom, and though she retired last year, she has no plans to call it quits.

“I will work with legislators, I do a lot of speaking engagements about hospice all over the country and I will continue to promote hospice. To my final breath, hospice is where my heart is.”

Zach Jay can be reached at 906-486-4401.