BRANFORD — Ask Barbara Pearce, president and CEO of North Haven-based Pearce Real Estate, why she signed on as interim CEO to lead a top-to-bottom reorganization of Connecticut Hospice this past January.
She’ll give you the same answer as Joe Mooney, a seasoned financial executive and former deputy chairman of the state Department of Revenue Services, who came out of retirement to take on the role of interim COO and CFO at Hospice around that time.
“The answer is no one, least of all me, wanted Hospice to go away,” said Pearce at last Sunday’s “Live Every Moment” gala celebrating Hospice’s 40 years in Branford and honoring retiring board chair Anthony “Unk” DaRos for his nearly 20 years of service to the institution.
With that, she echoed Mooney who, when informed of the steep fiscal challenges faced by Hospice, responded “how can I help?”
Since January, the two have engineered an organizational shake-up that’s dramatically streamlined the way the not-for-profit operates, as well as reduced its operating costs — all toward the objective of equaling the sterling reputation CT Hospice has enjoyed in its medical and palliatives services.
Theyput their regular lives on hold for the same reason that 250 people packed themselves into a space with a capacity for 200, propelling the event beyond all sponsorship and ticket sales goals.
It’s the same reason that almost everything was donated, from oysters courtesy of Jonathan Waters and Kim Granbery, to beer from Stony Creek Brewery and a tap by the Owenego, to Broadway-caliber entertainment from Branford natives Ryan Bloomquist and Greg Nobile.
“We’re always asked how Hospice managed to survive,” Pearce said, amid the clink of cocktail glasses and lively conversation. “Pretty much everyone wants to help.”
That’s in no small part due to the sense of pride felt by a town that inaugurated hospice care in America, in 1979, and since then, has been, as First Selectman Jamie Cosgrove put it, “a leader in patient care,” with its attention to the patient’s psychological and spiritual needs, art and music therapy, and support for the family as well as the patient.
“In the regular world, this area is famous for Yale and pizza,” Pearce said. “In the health care world, if you went around the country, we’d be famous for CT Hospice.”
It was DaRos who recognized, as far back as 1979, that “you can’t get a better place than this for people to spend their last days, you can’t find a better place than this in the country for a hospital of this type.”
Then there’s the resilience of the staff that has kept CT Hospice going “through one challenging circumstances after another, and really rising to it,” said Interim Director of External Affairs Karen Wies, who worked alongside former Corporation Counsel Evelyn Barnum, to help effect the top-to-bottom reorganization.
“We made radical changes to the way things are done and everyone, from the people in the back offices in finance and billing, to home care and inpatient nursing and social work, has given more than 100 percent, and at a very high and intense level for more than a year,” she said.
DaRos agreed. “One thing we didn’t change were the ones in the trenches — the nurses that work with the patients, and the volunteers. That’s what makes CT Hospice number one in the country for patient care,” he said.
Volunteers like Lisa Jimenez wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s a honor to be with patients and families,” she said. Likewise, Nancy Lynch, who’s served CT Hospice for the last 17 years. “It’s a wonderful place to work,” she said. “Nobody is in this for themselves.”
Which is why the outpouring of help is really no wonder, according to longtime supporter Susan Cosgrove Barnes.
“Hospice has touched so many people’s lives in the 40 years it’s been around,” she said.
Among them, U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3, a champion of Hospice since 1974 when she worked with Gov. Ella Grasso and Dennis Rezendes, a leader in the Hospice concept, to realize his idea of what Hospice could be.
It was DeLauro, said Pearce, who hosted a “thinkathon” at her home to brainstorm on the future of Hospice in Pearce’s early days as CEO. And it was DeLauro whose mother Luisa received four weeks of care at Hospice in September 2017.
“My mother going to Hospice, it was something I didn’t want to face,” she told the assembled crowd. “But now I associate her parting with a time of compassionate care in a place of great serenity. It was a blessing for us to have that kind of care here.”
Likewise, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who, Pearce said, “has been coming to Hospice in support of events and new programs” over its four decades of existence.
“I’ve never been here on a day when I wasn’t inspired,” he said, “when I visited people who were spending their last hours on this earth here with their families. I have never left this place, without loving life, without feeling more appreciative of the meaning of life, of the courage and strength people show here everyday. This is truly a magical place.”
Not to mention the guest of honor, Unk DaRos who, more than anyone, many agreed, personifies the soul of the Double Beach landmark, as well as “its revival of spirit,” as Patricia Baker, president and CEO of the CT Health Foundation, put it.
DaRos, said DeLauro, “worked at the very quarry where all the granite in this institution was mined.” In delivering Hospice to Branford, he was at once “a visionary and a man of action,” Mooney said. As First Selectman he frequently traveled to Hartford to testify on different bills that impacted Hospice and emceed major fundraisers in its support.
And when it was clear that Hospice was in trouble, he enabled its rescue, recruiting Pearce and Mooney, before stepping down for new leadership.
In the end, it was event chair Francine Sears who elegantly summed up DaRos’ contributions to CT Hospice.
When the sea wall of her Flying Point property fell into the sea, she called DaRos who, in his capacity as builder and stonemason, was working at a nearby property. When the owner asked where he was going, he replied “‘lady, when something’s wrong on the sea side, we show up,’” she said.
“Unk showed up to shore up my fallen sea wall. He showed up for CT Hospice these 20 years. So have Barbara and Joe and all of you. We all show up for this precious, sacred place.”
To donate to CT Hospice, visit www.hospice.com or call the Development Office at 203-315-7684.