It started as the brainchild of a small group of involved Sarasota, Fla. citizens, and in just three decades, Tidewell Hospice has almost miraculously grown from a staff of one, tucked away in rented office space at a local hospital, to one of the largest hospices in the U.S.
In 1978, hospice in America amounted to little more than a peculiarity. Although the idea of this specific kind of palliative care program for the terminally ill had taken root overseas, scattered U.S. hospice programs collectively served fewer than 6,000 patients a year by the late 1970s. But it was 1978 when a group of Sarasota health care professionals, clergy, fund raisers and others first began talking about how this philosophy of health care might benefit local citizens.
Former Sarasota Memorial Hospital Foundation President Charles Estill, who many now consider the founding father of what was then Hospice of Sarasota County, helped convene the group's first board of trustees for talks in 1979. Through his influence, Estill was able to convince Sarasota Memorial Hospital CEO Jack Floyd to carve out a two-room office for hospice inside the hospital.
The program's first administrator, Richard Pentecost, was soon hired, as was hospice's first nurse, Stella Grant, a former oncology nurse at the hospital who remains on staff today as Tidewell's clinical educator. Joan Grayson, a volunteer herself, came on board as volunteer coordinator.
Conceived as a volunteer-driven movement, Hospice of Sarasota County proved to be just that in the early years. Grayson traveled to the birthplace of hospice in the U.S. - Connecticut - for training and information-gathering. Upon her return, the program held its first volunteer training in December 1979, with around 50 people in attendance. Committees were formed to begin providing direction. Harriett Kirby Lewis, a Sarasota social worker with hospice experience in Chicago, volunteered to lend her expertise to the new program. Pastor George Cooley of Bee Ridge Presbyterian Church became Hospice's first "unofficial" chaplain.
Despite its promising start, however, the hospice's birth wasn't without setbacks. The first came just months into the process when, in Feb. 1980, Grayson became ill and was forced to leave her duties. Grant stepped into the void. For the next 18 months, she was the face of hospice in Sarasota, serving as nurse, home health aide, volunteer coordinator and everything in between.
That first year, 66 patients benefited from services of Hospice of Sarasota County, and growth was on the horizon. Three volunteer on-call nurses soon came aboard. The Selby Foundation, which had played a role in the start-up of the program through a generous grant, continued its valuable support. And at the end of 1981, hospice moved to its own location in a former physician's office on nearby Hillview Street.
With that move came additional staff. An office manager was added, and Leona Fredericks became the program's first full-time, paid social worker. In order to better serve all of Sarasota County, the agency also opened its first satellite office in a motel owned by - and located across the street from - Venice Hospital. This office was manned totally by volunteers.
The early growth had been promising, but there was a boom on the horizon, courtesy of the federal government. In 1982, Congress enacted new legislation which, among other things, created a specific hospice benefit under Medicare. Now, programs such as Hospice of Sarasota County, which had relied solely on donations to fund operations, would be part of the Medicare system.
With a new administrator, Tom Combs, Hospice of Sarasota County became Medicare certified in 1985, greatly increasing its ability to care for the terminally ill in the county. Patient census, which was less than 100 annually in the early years, was climbing close to 1,000 by the end of the 1980s. The hospice was again on the move - this time to a new office on Bee Ridge Road in Sarasota, and the first full-time nurse was hired to serve south county. Staff now included nurses, social workers, home health aides, office workers and a new medical records department.
With its mission well-established, Hospice of Sarasota County sought to extend its services to the residents north of the Sarasota-Bradenton Airport. In 1988, the program admitted its first Manatee County patients, and with that came a name change more reflective of hospice's new service area - Hospice of Southwest Florida.
The organization also spun off a separate fund-raising foundation (the Hospice Foundation of Southwest Florida) to assist in generating charitable dollars. And there was another office move, this time to Clark Road, just a short walk from today's Sarasota location on Rand Boulevard.
In 1990, 10 years after the admission of its first patient, Hospice of Southwest Florida now served an average of more than 1,000 patients each year.
With Combs leaving his post as administrator in 1989, Bonnie Harvey became the new president - first as an interim in 1989 and then fully in 1990. She had joined the organization two years earlier in the role of program director, and in the ten years of Harvey's tenure that followed, Hospice of Southwest Florida reached even greater heights of service.
Near the end of Combs' direction, hospice began examining the possibility of further expansion to include Charlotte and DeSoto counties. There was also the beginning of the organization's first capital campaign, aimed at funding the construction of a series of Hospice Houses throughout the region. Harvey oversaw the advancement of both.
After a successful fund-raising effort, construction began on the first house, to be completed at a cost of $2-million in Venice.
Although a leadership team had traveled to other hospices to examine their facilities - including one in nearby Winter Park - the design of the house was not based on any existing structure. The six-bed home was meant to be practical for its purpose, but also very much a homelike setting that fit into the community in which it was being built. Despite some initial opposition from residents, construction was approved, moved forward, and the first Hospice House and staff center opened in The Plantation Golf & Country Club development in June 1993. A familiar face - Stella Grant - served as its local administrator.
Almost immediately, work began on a second house and staff center in Bradenton, which opened two years later (September 1995). And next on the construction agenda was a new home for main administration and a Hospice House in Sarasota. Those became reality in 1997 with the debut of the current house and 22,000-square foot administrative center which is named for Estill, who died in 1995.
Despite the dirt moving, however, facilities weren't the only things growing out of the ground at that time. In 1994, hospice launched its arts program (now known as Complementary Services). This program focuses on quality of life offerings, and has expanded to include such things as aroma and touch therapies, pet therapy, clowning, music and horticultural therapy. Staff had also grown to 150, and more than 850 volunteers were active by 1995.
The fourth Hospice House and staff center opened in May 1999 in Port Charlotte, just months before Harvey stepped aside after overseeing an unbelievable decade of growth. By the time new President and CEO Marge Maisto took over in 2000, Hospice of Southwest Florida featured facilities in three counties and an annual patient census of more than 4,000. Fund raising was also at an all-time high. The Hospice Foundation of Southwest Florida, which was dissolved in 1998, had collected $550,000 in its first year. By the turn of the century, charitable donations had reached nearly $4-million per year.
Under Maisto, from 2000-2010, there was no slowing. Because of an incredible housing boom and the associated population growth in East Manatee County, Hospice split its Bradenton clinical team, forming a new one to specifically serve this area. It was evident that a permanent facility would also be needed. In October 2001, Hospice of Southwest Florida became the first community based hospice in the nation with five hospice houses when the first patient was admitted to the new Ellenton Hospice House. A sixth house became reality in August 2006, when an eight-room facility opened in Englewood and a seventh, in Arcadia, took its first patient on Jan. 10, 2008.
In the fall of 2005, in an effort to better brand its services, Hospice of Southwest Florida became Tidewell Hospice. While proud of its heritage and its recognition as part of a larger hospice movement, the hospice moved into a new era in its development with an eye on distinguishing itself as a premier end-of-life health care provider. For years, there has been a misconception that hospice is universal - that all hospices are branches of a larger national organization.
With that in mind, the hospice began an exhaustive exercise in fact-finding to determine what sets it apart and to find out how to best communicate that to the larger community. One of the products of that research was the new Tidewell Hospice identity, giving the agency a bold new look, individual and recognizable. The new brand made it easier for the hospice to talk about what makes it special - the quality of its care, the commitment and expertise of its people, the range of its services and the focus on the positive experience of living each day.
The name is a hope-filled reference to the ebb and flow of life, evocative of gulf coast living and the natural rhythm of the environment.
In August 2010, Maisto retired and was succeeded as President and CEO by Gerry Radford. Radford joined Tidewell in 1998, and was the organization's Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer prior to being elevated into leadership by the Board of Trustees.
The number of patients and families under hospice care continues to climb. Today, daily census in hospice and pre-hospice programs exceeds 1,400, and Tidewell continues to launch new programs designed to reach out earlier to those within the end-of-life care continuum.
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