Is your hospice prepared for a major tragedy in the area?

Lexington hospice helps after plane crash

When Delta flight 5191 crashed shortly after takeoff on a Sunday morning last August, staff from Hospice of the Bluegrass in Lexington, KY, got involved, and managers put into place a plan to provide support to the families who had lost a loved one in the disaster.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist tragedy, Hospice of the Bluegrass managers decided the hospice needed to have a specific plan in place to handle a major area disaster, says Sherri Weisenfluh, MSW, LCSW, an associate vice president of counseling for the hospice, which has an average daily census of about 870 people and a staff of approximately 600 people.

"After Sept. 11 occurred, that certainly resulted in our putting a big focus on disasters and the kind of training that people need to prepare," Weisenfluh says.

Hospice staff trained with the American Red Cross to handle mental health issues after a major tragedy, she says.

"The idea was if a crisis occurred then those people would be responders, and that's what happened after flight 5191 crashed," Weisenfluh explains. "A number of our staff was called to respond."

The airline had the families impacted by the tragedy stay at a single hotel where they could be kept up-to-date. So hospice staff took brochures about sudden loss to the hotel and left these in the lobby where family members could pick them up, Weisenfluh says.

When they ran out of the brochures, the National Hospice & Palliative Care Organization had a number of these sent to them overnight so they could re-supply the hotel several times, she says.

Also, some of the hospice's staff were involved with a private memorial service for the families of the 49 passengers who were killed in the tragedy.

Hospice staff members also were present as mental health professionals to assist when the airport had family members visit the crash site, Weisenfluh says.

"We had some chaplains participate in the community-wide memorial service, and that was done by the Lexington Urban County Government," Weisenfluh says. "That was a much more public service, and some families attended that, and our staff worked with families and offered to sit with families."

The hospice's work continued as new issues arose.

For example, when a local newspaper ran an advertisement by law firms that suggested family members might want to sue the airline, there was public outcry about the crassness of the ad, and the paper decided to pull the ad and donate all income generated by it to the United Way of the Bluegrass, Weisenfluh recalls.

The United Way took these funds, plus additional donations on behalf of the tragedy's victims, and provided the hospice with $60,000 in funding for providing bereavement counseling to any people impacted by a sudden loss, including the families of the plane crash victims, she says.

The hospice held two group counseling sessions on sudden loss in December 2006, and one in January 2007.

"We started to get calls from family members through the holidays, and they said they were having a hard time and wanted some information," says Mary K. Fedorchuk, LCSW, OSWC, a social worker with the Hospice of the Bluegrass.

"Most were receiving individual counseling, but they also wanted to come together as a group to get some information about how to cope through the holidays," Fedorchuk says.

Weisenfluh and Fedorchuk explain how the hospice prepared for a major area tragedy:

Develop partnerships with other community agencies.

"Partner with other agencies in your community before any disaster strikes," Weisenfluh suggests. "It's essential because you'll want to coordinate a response."

After the plane crash, information was scarce at first and things were chaotic, so it was immensely helpful that the Hospice of the Bluegrass already had good relationships in place with the American Red Cross and other organizations, she says.

"You can get together quicker and have a quicker response, and it creates less chaos," Weisenfluh says. "This is very important because you can't do it all on your own."

Train staff in sudden loss and trauma.

It's essential to train staff to handle sudden loss and trauma, Weisenfluh says.

"Those are very different issues than what you see from hospice families," she says.

For the Hospice of the Bluegrass, the training was handled partly by the American Red Cross, so this served the dual purpose of enhancing the partnership between the two organizations, making it logical for the Red Cross to contact the hospice after the tragedy occurred.

It's also important to have plenty of brochures and educational information about coping with sudden loss. These materials can be made available for people who experience the more typical types of sudden loss, such as having a loved one die in a car crash or because of a heart attack, but they especially are useful when a bigger tragedy strikes.

"Having materials on hand that are specific to sudden loss is very important," Weisenfluh says. "A lot of times people will want to read something, and they may not know what they need right away because they're often raw and numb."

It's helpful if people experiencing such a tragedy have a short brochure to point them in the right direction, she says.

Having staff trained in sudden loss and disaster situations also helps with wider community outreach.

For instance, the Hospice of the Bluegrass sent some staff to Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina struck, Weisenfluh notes.

"We let a couple of our staff go to those areas because they had Red Cross training, and we paid their salaries while they were gone," she says. "Financially, there is a commitment because if people are part of the Red Cross they're supposed to respond to disasters which may not be in [their] own community."

Gear specific services to people impacted by sudden loss.

"Think of the losses happening in any community," Fedorchuk says. "There are accidents and suicides happening every day."

Hospice leaders should assess the community's needs and see which areas have unmet needs, Fedorchuk suggests.

For example, the Hospice of the Bluegrass has a survivors of suicide group that meets regularly.

"Lexington in a sense is a very small community, so we knew the flight 5191 crash would have a ripple effect," Fedorchuk says. "Someone knew somebody, or the tragedy triggered another loss, so we wanted to open up our doors and say, 'We are here.'"

The hospice has a year-round grief group that's open to anyone in need, and there's a spouse grief group, as well as camps for children who are struggling with a loss, she says.

Since the plane crash disaster, the hospice's three sudden loss group sessions have combined education about coping skills with the support that's possible because of people sharing a common experience.

"Hospice of the Bluegrass is incredibly committed to offering community bereavement services," Fedorchuk says. "We have people who are not hospice patients who come into the grief and loss center and have benefited from therapy."

Hospices interested in providing this type of community assistance and outreach need to be committed philosophically, Weisenfluh says.

"The hospice board has to feel like this is part of something they could do, because if they don't view that as part of the hospice's mission, then they might not want to even consider doing it," she says. "That philosophy is an important part of it, and you need support from your board and chief executive officer."

Hospices could offer individual counseling and group counseling services to people impacted by sudden loss. And these types of services could be increased after a major tragedy strikes.

Also, the hospice's participation in public memorial services provides an important outreach function because a major tragedy has a wide emotional impact. People who may not have known any of the victims also could be experiencing grief of some sort.

"A lot of people after flight 5191's crash felt that it could have been them on the plane," Weisenfluh says.

The flight was a popular morning flight, she notes.

"A lot of people had the experience of 'Gee, you get up in the morning, and you don't know what could happen,'" she says. "They think, 'That could have been me on that flight,' and thinking this makes people stop and think about mortality, and it also brings out the compassion in people."

The hospice's own staff knew several of the families impacted by the crash, and even one of the first responders to the crash site had lost a sister in the tragedy, Weisenfluh notes.

"There were side things like that going on, and the whole community just gasped — I can't think of any other word," she adds.

Need More Information?

  • Mary K. Fedorchuk, LCSW, OSWC, Social Worker, Hospice of the Bluegrass, Lexington Office, 2312 Alexandria Drive, Lexington, KY 40504. Telephone: (859) 276-5344.
  • Sherri Weisenfluh, MSW, LCSW, Associate Vice President of Counseling, Hospice of the Bluegrass, Lexington Office, 2312 Alexandria Drive, Lexington, KY 40504. Telephone: (859) 276-5344.