Sentimental Journey program gives free rides to hospice patients

Unique East Pierce County program lets terminally ill get out of the house for a little while

Staff writerMarch 20, 2014 

A blanket with a fire truck stitched into the fabric is draped over a couch in Dorothy Heikkinen’s apartment at a retirement home in Bonney Lake.

Heikkinen and her husband, Derry Fitch, call it a beautiful reminder of a wonderful memory made possible by a new program for hospice patients in East Pierce County.

The Sentimental Journey program, one of only three of its kind in the country, gives eligible hospice patients a cost-free trip of their choice to do things they couldn’t otherwise.

It deploys off-duty EMTs and paramedics in aid vehicles to escort patients and family members to their favorite spots. The custom blankets double as souvenirs.

“It was a bright spot on a cloudy day,” Heikkinen said of her journey to a family lunch in Gig Harbor.

Sentimental Journey is one of several services provided by East Pierce Fire & Rescue Foundation, an independent nonprofit affiliated with the fire district.

The foundation was started in 2012. It has a limited partnership with MultiCare Good Samaritan’s Home Health and Hospice, which provides support services and care to patients.

Sentimental Journey is in its early stages. Only a few trips have been fulfilled.

The goal is to eventually expand to other hospice programs, said Teresa McCallion, president of the foundation.

McCallion said hospice patients are often cooped up at home tied to medical equipment, unable to do what they enjoy. The program grants them mobility so they can have stress-free, memorable experiences with their loved ones.

Heikkinen found out about it through her social worker, and decided she wanted to have lunch at her favorite waterfront restaurant.

The off-duty responders drove Heikkinen and Fitch to meet her children at the Gig Harbor Anthony’s a few weeks ago. A long stretch of rainy weather was broken up with sunshine during the four-hour journey.

“It looked like diamonds dancing on the water,” Fitch said of the view. “It took our minds off any worries for the time being.”

Although a family lunch date could be considered a simple gesture, it was important to Heikkinen. She and Fitch have lived in their retirement home for about a year, and they usually only make it to the nearby Applebee’s for birthdays and other special occasions.

After Heikkinen had a heart attack and triple bypass surgery in fall 2008, she started to suffer from shallow breathing that soon became unbearable.

She eventually needed to use oxygen and started hospice care about six months ago.

Because an oxygen tank goes everywhere she does, she said she doesn’t get out often. But she stays positive.

As for her journey, Heikkinen struggled to sum it up in words.

“They were the kindest people,” she said of the medics. “It was unbelievable how pleasant it was.”

Lynn Crozier, administrator with Home Health and Hospice, said East Pierce’s foundation has shown “depth and professionalism” with the Sentimental Journey program.

She said it provides happiness at the end of patients’ lives.

“It’s all about quality of life,” Crozier said.

McCallion said first responders also benefit from participating in the program. They often deal with sad situations, she said, and journeys offer positive interaction with patients.

“It changes you,” McCallion said. “You see the world for the first time, sometimes, when you see it through a dying person’s eyes.”

Duane Bratvold of Bonney Lake, treasurer of the foundation, said the journeys are especially meaningful to him. He suffered a serious heart attack in May 2012.

“It means everything to give a person one last happy thought,” he said, choking back tears and adding that he almost didn’t get that chance himself.

“We shouldn’t be on this planet if we can’t do something like that.”

Kari Plog: 253-597-8682

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