By Jeff Mullin, Senior Writer
Enid News and Eagle
ENID, Okla. —
Hospice Circle of Love began as a dream.
Edythe Looper, one of Circle of Love’s founders, became familiar with hospice care in the early 1980s while visiting a dying relative in Texas, and brought the concept back to Enid. She saw the need for hospice care here, and gathered a group of community leaders to bring the dream to life.
“We were babes and we didn’t know it,” said Denny Krick, another Hospice Circle of Love founder and current board member. “There was lots of struggling, but we thought we could do it here. That was kind of the seed that got us going. It certainly didn’t happen overnight.”
In December of 1981, a local not-for-profit hospice was formed, the Garfield County Hospice Association. A board was appointed in early 1982. The group’s first employee, nurse Cathy Graber, was not hired until 1983.
The founders’ original concept was not to accept government funding for patient services, but to rely on donations and fundraising.
“Medicare had approved hospice, but we said we didn’t want that money,” Krick said. “Part of that thinking was, with all the paperwork that the government required, it probably wasn’t worth it, no more than it would be used in this community.
“We struggled for a much longer period than we needed to before money started to come in.”
Garfield County Hospice Association began caring for its first patient in November of that year. The organization cared for six patients that first year.
Graber wore many hats in the early days, operating out of the organization’s office in a corner of the library at University Place Christian Church.
“I was on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week then,” Graber said.
“Cathy worried about surviving on what we paid her,” Krick said. “She was the employee. If you called hospice, that’s the person who answered the phone. She had to go see families, and whatever books there were, she kept. She was really a soldier. We never repaid Cathy Graber what we owed her.”
The early years were a struggle financially. A headline in the Jan. 18, 1987, Enid Daily Eagle read, “Lack of funds may force hospice to end service.” At the time, the group needed $6,000 to survive. An appeal went out to the public and the money was raised, prompting the Feb. 4, 1987, Enid Morning News to report, with dripping irony, “Hospice saved from death.”
“Early on, people didn’t know much about hospice,” Krick said. “We tried to educate doctors about what our purposes were. It was an everyday threat. Can we get enough money to pay people to work for us? People can’t work for free.”
In 1986, the organization became Medicare-certified. In 1987, its first employee became its director, a position Graber held until her retirement in 2009.
“Hospice was such a new concept people couldn’t pronounce the word,” Graber said. “It was new to the whole world, and we were learning. We had to educate the physicians, educate the medical community on what it was. When we started, if you didn’t take someone who was dying to the hospital, it was almost socially unacceptable. That is something we had to overcome.”
After becoming director, Graber didn’t do much direct patient care. But of everything she experienced in her 25 years with Hospice Circle of Love, as the organization became known in 1990, she said it is her patients that mean the most to her.
“I think my memories are of my patients,” she said. “It was wonderful to be involved in the development of the program, but I still love my patients the most.”
Graber was responsible for Naoma Snow becoming a volunteer with Garfield County Hospice Association back in 1983. Snow responded to a newspaper article in which Graber announced training for hospice volunteers.
“I could hardly pronounce hospice because I hadn’t seen the word,” said Snow. “I thought if Cathy’s doing it, it must be worthwhile. She’s the reason I went to the meeting.”
Snow, now 81, visited the group’s first patient, and has been volunteering with the organization ever since. She had two brothers under hospice care. She remembers them when she sits with patients today.
“I’m back with my brothers,” she said.
After those early struggles, Hospice Circle of Love has grown and remains Enid’s only not-for-profit hospice.
“Obviously I’m biased, but I think we have the best care in town,” said Chad Caldwell, Hospice Circle of Love director. “I think that’s backed up by the fact we’ve been here for 30 years. Hospices have come and gone, and we’ve remained and continue to be strong today.”
That strength comes from local support, Caldwell said.
“The support that we’ve seen from our physicians, from our long-term care residential facilities, from our hospitals, from pastors and the general public, has been overwhelming,” Caldwell said. “Obviously, we wouldn’t be here 30 years later if we didn’t experience that support.”
However, Hospice Circle of Love has not grown so much that it has forgotten its original mission, said veteran social worker Lynn Curl.
“With us, we’ve never gotten so big that we haven’t interacted with each other to make sure we’re all providing the same type of care, and that we’re all out there doing the best we can for the best interest of our patients and their families,” she said.