SSM Health Foundation funds final wishes for hospice patients

June 15, 2022


John Holzhauer said the best word he could come up with to describe how he felt as he toured Lambeau Field, home of his beloved Green Bay Packers, is awestruck.

Four months after his siblings surreptitiously arranged the 450-mile trip last December from his home in tiny Kinmundy in Southern Illinois to what to many fans of the National Football League team is a shrine in northern Wisconsin, Holzhauer's memories of the outing remained vivid.

John Holzhauer looks down on the playing field during a tour of Lambeau Field, home of the Green Bay Packers. The trip to the stadium fulfilled a wish of Holzhauer's. It was financed in part through the SSM Health Foundation's Memories That Last program.

He described the 50-foot atrium-filling replica of the Vince Lombardi Trophy, named in honor of the legendary Packers coach and awarded each year to the winner of the Super Bowl; shared statistics cited by his tour guide about the cost of maintaining the storied football field; and laughed about being told his tour group was 20 stories up from the 50-yard line at one point.

"I've been fortunate to see something that I cared so much about," said the 63-year-old Holzhauer, a cancer patient who was under hospice care at home from St. Louis-based SSM Health until his death May 3. "It was a gift."

The SSM Health Foundation partly financed the gift through its Memories That Last program. The program provides financial gifts of $25-$500 to cover the cost of fulfilling wishes of patients in their final days and creating special memories for their loved ones.

John Holzhauer, left, takes a break for a drink with his brother-in-law Leroy Meister at Lambeau Field, home turf of Holzhauer's beloved Green Bay packers.

'Awesome and amazing'
That certainly happened for Holzhauer and his relatives. His older sister Janice Winks recalled how stunned her brother was to tour the home turf of a team he has cheered on for decades. "He was standing there, and he was trying to take it all in and he didn't even know what to say," said Winks, who accompanied Holzhauer on the trip along with another sister, Marsha Meister, and Meister's husband.

The sisters and another of the eight siblings in the family gathered at Holzhauer's apartment in April to talk about his big trip, which stretched over three days. They also reminisced about a shorter one he took a couple of weeks later to Busch Stadium, where another of Holzhauer's favorite teams, the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team, plays.

Touring the stadiums was on Holzhauer's bucket list. While Memories That Last funding didn't specifically go toward the trip to St. Louis, by covering some of the expenses for the Lambeau Field visit, the family said it made the second tour possible.

Andrea Shupe, a SSM Health hospice social worker, was the family's connection to the program. When she overheard Holzhauer's siblings discussing his wish to go to Lambeau Field, she told them that the SSM Health Foundation might be able to chip in on the cost.

"I didn't do much," Shupe said. "I put them in contact with the person who actually had access to the money."

Marsha Meister was effusive in her praise for Shupe, the SSM Health Foundation and the people in the Packers and Cardinals organizations who set up the tours and followed up with gifts. "John never asks for anything and when we got this together with everybody's help, it was awesome and amazing," she said.

Dream takes flight
Tobi Bateman, an SSM Health hospice nurse case manager, helped with a Memories That Last experience for a patient named Barbara Woodruff who had a dream of piloting a small airplane. Bateman said that she contacted SSM Health hospice social worker Gina Bax the same day she heard about Woodruff's wish.


"I finished up my visit and I wasn't even out of the parking lot and I'm on the phone to Gina," Bateman recalled. "Gina got really excited and she's like, 'I'm not gonna do anything else this afternoon but look into this.'"

Woodruff, 72, had advanced cancer and had grown too weak to tolerate chemotherapy. She was getting hospice care in a residential nursing facility.

Bax contacted several companies that give flying lessons and eventually arranged a flight with Elite Aviation of Chesterfield, Missouri, at a discounted rate.

Barbara Woodruff stands on the tarmac of an airfield in Chesterfield, Missouri, between the plane she briefly piloted and Tobi Bateman, an SSM Health hospice nurse who accompanied her on the flight. Woodruff's adventure was planned by SSM Health hospice workers and financed through the SSM Health Foundation's Memories That Last program.

The delicate process of getting the medically fragile Woodruff on the plane was complicated further by a couple of factors, Bateman and Bax said. First was the weather, since it was the middle of winter. Next was Elite Aviation's request that someone on Woodruff's care team accompany her. That required SSM Health's legal team to get involved to ensure that any potential liabilities were covered.

Bateman wound up in a seat right behind Woodruff on the Feb. 10 flight. She witnessed Woodruff's elation when the pilot briefly handed over the controls as the plane soared over St. Louis and the surrounding region. "She was just giddy," Bateman said.

After the plane landed, Elite Aviation presented Woodruff with a flight log as a keepsake. Woodruff's support team — three close friends, a chaplain, Bateman and Bax — toasted her on the tarmac with sparkling juice.

"I was a little scared to death, to be honest, but I'm so glad that I got to experience it with her and to be able to document it," said Bateman, whose Facebook post with pictures of Woodruff piloting the plane drew dozens of likes and several shares. Woodruff died March 28.

All hands on deck
Bax said it's not usual for Memories That Last projects to require more than financial support, such as the sign-off from the legal team for Bateman to be on Woodruff's flight. She described an "all-hands-on-deck" effort by SSM Health and SSM Health Foundation to arrange the outings or events and make sure any exigencies are addressed.

Relatives and friends surround Cullen Clark outside his home in Warrenton, Missouri, as cars parade past. The procession was planned by SSM Health hospice workers as part of the SSM Health Foundation's Memories That Last program. Cullen was a fan of car shows. He died shortly after this event.

The wishes the program fulfills aren't always as grand as taking a road trip to a stadium or piloting an aircraft. Bax said Memories That Last has funded meals from favorite restaurants, birthday parties and even a small wedding. The program helped one patient throw a surprise retirement party for a hospice nurse who had helped with his care. Another time, Bax tracked down a supplier of a patent's favorite canned clam chowder, which wasn't on store shelves because of the season, and tapped funding from the program to arrange a special delivery.

Another wish fulfillment that Bax remembers especially fondly was for a woman who had been a civilian meteorologist for the military during World War II and mentioned that she was curious about how much the equipment might have changed. Bax helped set up a visit to the weather station at Scott Air Force Base, near St. Louis.

"They went over all the equipment and they treated her so well there," Bax recalled. "They gave her one of their military coins that shows that you're a part of their unit. It was a really special day."

Happy tears
Another hospice patient, 60-year-old Cullen Clark of Warrenton, Missouri, had wished to attend a car show. Fulfilling that wish was complicated because Clark was medically fragile due to colon cancer and because the COVID-19 pandemic had put a halt to most car shows and other live events.

Bax and some of her colleagues came up with the novel idea of bringing a car show to Clark. They partnered with a group called the Misfit Toys Car Club and arranged a parade through Clark's neighborhood in March 2021. As Clark sat in his wheelchair in his yard surrounded by relatives and friends, about 150 cars cruised past with the drivers honking and waving.

"He couldn't believe that many people cared enough to show up for him," Bax said. "The parade brought him to tears — happy tears. It really touched him, and all of us."

Clark died about a month after the car parade.

Shupe, Bateman and Bax said being able to grant wishes to patients with the help of Memories That Last inspires their work.

"Hospice isn't all just death and dying. It's about helping people live their life the best way with what they have left," Bateman said. "If we can make somebody's dream come true, that's just amazing."

Copyright © 2022 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

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