Kodiak hospice and palliative program offers support and neighborly care
Twin sisters Adelia Myrick and Jennifer Pedersen recall a time as pre-teens at their family’s setnet site in Uganik Bay, Alaska. As is typical with siblings, they ended up in a minor spat, the details of which neither can even remember. Rather than referee, their father, Chris Myrick, used that opportunity to impart some wisdom to his daughters.
Later the girls found a note from him that they have cherished ever since. It read: “Be peaceful in your hearts and kind to each other.” It was one of many they would receive over the years, what Pedersen describes as “gems, little gifts that seemed to appear at just the right times.”
After losing their father to a decades-long battle with Alzheimer’s in 2021, that note has taken on even more meaning. Chris Myrick’s passing, they said, was a peaceful and kind way for him to leave the world, thanks to the work of Hospice and Palliative Care of Kodiak.
“He was definitely his own person,” said Adelia, who still fishes the family setnet site she grew up on. “He came to Alaska looking for authentic experiences, and he found them.”
“Chris was capable, but he was quiet; he didn’t boast, and he was funny,” his wife, Betsey Myrick, said. “He was a runner and liked to hike, fish and chop wood. Kodiak was a good place for us.”
Chris’s first diagnosis, labelled atypical Alzheimer’s, came in 2004 when he and Betsey traveled to New England to visit family and see a specialist at Harvard. His rare form of Alzheimer’s affected the visual cortex and would only worsen. The couple, together since college, embarked on the journey together. Betsey was determined to keep him home.
At first it seemed manageable, she said, but as Chris lost his sight, and the disease worsened, she felt uncomfortable leaving him alone for any stretch of time.
That’s when Hospice and Palliative Care of Kodiak stepped in. In 2021, Providence Alaska provided more than $50,000 in community benefit funding to help the organization continue the hospice work it has been doing since 2011 and to expand its palliative care program. HPCK also works with the Providence Medical Group Hospice and Palliative Care team in Anchorage, which brings together doctors, nurses, social workers and spiritual care providers who collectively care for patients. Together, the goal is to help families and their loved ones navigate the difficult transitions that come with long-term illness, dying and death.
“We’re really trying to eliminate that fear mentality, that ‘I’m giving up’ mentality,” said HPCK’s executive director Kate Paulson. “Our clients can still seek treatments and work with doctors, but we can be there as a resource and referral to caregivers and families. We reach out and meet them where they are at. Oftentimes, that means we are providing more long-term emotional support and respite to residents here.”
HPCK currently has two full-time staff and 16 volunteers, who go where they are needed to help their neighbors in their community.
“On average we have about 10 direct-care clients at any given time,” Paulson said. The office also provides resources on advance planning and bereavement, and is a place that Paulson said they can “just share what is on their heart.”
“In that sense, we are not only serving one client, but rather an entire family unit,” she added.
Deb Houlden-Engvall is a longtime hospice volunteer and Kodiak resident who began helping the Myrick family in 2015.
“How I helped varied over the course of that time,” she said. Sometimes, Houlden-Engvall would stay with Chris so Betsey, an avid musician, could play at the senior center. Music, Betsey’s daughter Jennifer said, is her outlet, her “happy place” that gave her the respite she needed from the rigors of daily caregiving.
Engvall and Chris became fast friends. While Chris may have lost his vision, his ears perked up when she walked into the house, pronouncing in a rounded-vowel accent, “Hi, Neighbah!”
“Deb would get the mail and do a lot of errands, but the most wonderful thing is she would come in every now and then and talk with Chris with her New England accent,” Betsey said.
The two bonded over those shared enunciations, which Deb, also a longtime Kodiak resident, could resurrect at a moment’s notice. If it eased Chris’ mind to hear those once-familiar accents, then she was happy to oblige.
“She had the best connection with him and was able to come calm him down on those days he would be upset or uncomfortable,” Betsey added.
Chris passed away peacefully, in his home, with his family surrounding him, on Nov. 27, 2021 – something that would not have been possible without the ongoing support of HPCK.
“After he was gone, it was days before we could return the hospital bed, so we put a quilt on it, and the beautiful felt heart that his sister had made, and some poems and drawings from his grandchildren,” Betsey said, an idea she read in an HPCK hospice booklet. “We decorated the bed with a rainbow scarf and a vase of flowers to make a little shrine.
“It was so much better for us than seeing an empty bed. It was more comforting.”