Somerset hospice's supporters hold candlelight vigil on facility's last day

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Aug. 1—SOMERSET, Pa. — Several dozen Somerset County residents gathered on Sunday, In Touch Hospice House's last day in operation, for a candlelight vigil to remember the care and love shared at the Somerset facility.

UPMC announced in July that, due to low demand, the inpatient hospice would close.

UPMC officials have said that the 10-bed hospice facility has averaged just three patients a day this year and that hospice care in the Somerset area will continue in settings such as homes, skilled care facilities and UPMC Somerset.

Gerre Keyser, a volunteer at the facility, said it has been a difficult week, and her heart is broken.

"We watched our patients go to different facilities," she said, "and the one that passed away did not really want to leave here at all, but he passed away — and then the last lady was 92. They moved her Friday, and she passed away yesterday, so it's been a very emotional roller-coaster ride this week and our hearts are broken."

She added that the transition has been difficult for the patients, as well.

"They were emotional, too, because most of them did not want to go — they didn't want to go to another facility," she said. "They wanted to stay here until the end, but as they found the places, they had to go. They had to go wherever."

Chris Meyer, one of the organizers of the vigil, said that he's seen the difference in hospice care and other care.

"My mother died before this facility was here," he said. "She went to a nursing home, a nursing home that I worked at for seven years. They did everything they could possibly do, but nursing home care is totally different from hospice care. As many of you know, it is totally different. They did the best they could and I'm forever indebted to them.

"However, my mother-in-law passed away in this room right here, and I got to see the difference between the two, and it is, indeed, night and day."

Meyer said that he and several others will be meeting with UPMC officials on Monday to see if there are any options available that are similar to In Touch Hospice House, which was originally funded by the Wheeler family and opened in 2009.

Retired oncology nurse Bonnie Miller said that she's been a supporter of the hospice and a supportive family member "forever."

"My brother-in-law passed here, and I had patients that I got to come out and see," she said. "It was such a place of peace and solace and comfort, and the staff was amazing and outstanding."

She said that she and her sister Gail chose to have their father at home for his final days and were able to provide care for him.

"Many people don't have that option," she said. "They don't have families that live nearby, or they may have families that cannot handle the emotions or the physical needs of the patients, and so this was a wonderful, wonderful place, and I'm so very, very sad to see UPMC making this decision. ... It's heartbreaking. It really is."

Diane Martin also had several family members pass at the hospice and said she and her family "believe in this place."

"I know the kind of care they gave, and the community really, really needs this. It needs to continue, and not become offices or whatever," she said.

State Rep. Carl Walker Metzgar, R-Berlin, who has criticized the decision to close the hospice, was in the crowd at the vigil.