Family's Gift Honors First Patient with ALS at Munson Healthcare Hospice House

Snacking on graham crackers or freshly popped popcorn. Enjoying a scoop (or two) of chocolate ice cream. Grabbing a cup of coffee. Gathering for a home-cooked meal. 

For Dick and Mary Ann Russell, as well as their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, the Munson Healthcare Hospice House kitchen offered a comfortable space for spending precious time together. They’ll forever hold tight to the memories they made there. 

Mary Ann, 82, battled Lou Gehrig’s disease and spent six months at the Hospice House in Traverse City before passing away in November 2018. 

“We walked into her room that night, and she opened her eyes,” said Dawn Russell, Mary Ann’s daughter-in-law. “She grabbed our hands and squeezed them three times, which meant, ‘I love you.’ It was something that we did with Mom over the prior months as writing became more difficult for her.”

To honor his beloved “sweetie bear,” Dick had wanted to do something special in her memory of being a wife, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. Dick wanted to give
back to Munson Hospice – in a way that was most fitting given the memorable moments they all shared there. His donation of $25,000 is allowing Munson Healthcare to install a new
kitchenette in the Hospice House. 

“It’s a remarkable place,” Dawn Russell said of the Hospice House and its amenities for families. “When we learned about the need for updating the kitchen area, we thought that would be perfect — Mom would love this. To be able to do something in her
memory, knowing it did so much not only for Mom, but for all of us … and hopefully will do the same for other families.”

Time with Loved Ones

Tucked away in a quiet wooded area steps from Munson Medical Center, the eight-bedroom Hospice House provides end-of-life medical care aimed at enhancing the quality of life of patients who no longer intend to pursue curative treatment. 

Prior to Mary Ann’s time in hospice, her son Rich and daughter-in-law Dawn knew in their hearts that something was wrong. After months of difficulty walking, loss of speech, and being told Mary Ann had experienced a “mini stroke,” it was a speech therapist who reached out to them with a suspicion of ALS. This began their journey to the University of Michigan ALS Clinic in March 2018, where Mary Ann was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, more commonly referred to as ALS. 

ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, is a disease in which the breakdown of nerve cells weakens muscles, ultimately reducing the functionality of the muscles altogether. While medications and therapy can help to reduce discomfort and slow the progression of ALS, there is no cure.

After a health provider suggested that the family look into Hospice, it was through a friend of Dawn’s that the Russell family learned about Hospice House. Not long after, the family met with Dr. Roman Barraza, a palliative care expert and the medical director for Munson Hospice.

“I just remember thinking to myself, ‘This just seems too good to be true,’” Dawn said of the Hospice House. “This place was so beautiful — it was like being home.”

‘Great-Grandma’s New House’

Prior to Mary Ann’s arrival, Munson Hospice House had not yet cared for someone with ALS. Dr. Barraza arranged for the proper ALS-alleviating machinery to be delivered, and nurses and aides were trained to operate the technology before her arrival.

“Hospice helps not only the patients, but also the family, through tough times. Times where people need just a little extra care, support, and dignity,” Rich said. “All of the staff here are very helpful in helping not only the patient, but in caring for the patient’s family. They just make life a little better for everyone. They are very family-oriented — from the patient down to the great-grandchildren, they take care of everyone.” 

From celebrating birthdays and great-grandchildren’s first steps, to spending her wedding anniversary with her high school sweetheart and husband of 62 years, life did not stop for Mary Ann — rather, during her six-month stay at the Hospice House, it became even more of a celebration.

The great-grandchildren often referred to Hospice House as “Great-Grandma’s New House,” and felt comforted by the beautiful location, kind staff, and overall atmosphere. “It was not a frightening place for them,” Dawn said, adding that “the kids felt free to walk, play, and enjoy time with Great-Grandma.” They covered her walls with the pictures and drawings they made in the common space, and thanked the nurses for taking care of her.

“They’ll realize in time just how sick she was,” Dawn said. “But for them to not be afraid — for them to find comfort here and the memories that were made — it’s a very special place. They were always hugging her and holding hands. They had a special bond.”

Learn more about Munson Healthcare Hospice and how your gift can help patients and their families