Fran Grauch and Martha O'Herlihy were homemakers in Severna Park back in 1978 when they decided to indulge in a night out. Hoping for a little intellectual stimulation, the pair chose to take in a lecture at Johns Hopkins University.
The speaker was a psychiatrist named Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the noted author of the book "On Death and Dying," which helped change attitudes about death and its process.
The two women had thought the lecture would be a "nice night out," recalled Grauch.
It turned out to be much more.
Grauch and O'Herlihy, who are both nurses, were fascinated by Kubler-Ross's talk and her challenge to the audience to spread the word about the stages of death and how people can help care for those who are dying. In fact, the two women were so moved by the challenge that they took it on. They talked to friends and acquaintances about the Kubler-Ross lecture and about how they, too, wanted to find ways to help ease the physical and emotional pain of dying people.
A physician the two women knew suggested they start dispensing what they had recently learned about the end of life. And so, they did.
In 1979, Grauch and O'Herlihy, through word-of-mouth contacts, began visiting terminally ill patients, talking to them, comforting them and helping their families manage the impact of the impending death on their own lives. Eventually, Grauch and O'Herlihy took on other volunteer hospice workers and moved their service, then called Arundel Hospice, out of their homes and into a small office nearby in Severna Park.
In 1993, the newly renamed Hospice of the Chesapeake relocated to larger quarters in Millersville until last month, when it moved again to its current location on Defense Highway in Annapolis.
Hospice services are offered on a sliding scale depending on a patient's ability to pay. Medicare and private insurance are accepted.
The organization now also serves residents of Prince George's County and has a residential facility in Linthicum -- the Betty Jane and Creston G. Tate Foundation Chesapeake Hospice House -- for the care of terminally ill patients.
And earlier this year, Hospice of the Chesapeake celebrated its 25th anniversary with a successful Beacon of Hope fundraising gala at the Sheraton Barcelo Hotel in Annapolis. The event attracted 460 people and raised a record $301,830 for hospice programs and services.
The gala was followed by a groundbreaking last month for another Hospice House, a 5,700-square-foot residential facility for terminally ill patients. The house, on Solomons Island Road in Harwood, will have eight patient rooms, a chapel, a meditation garden and a communal kitchen where families will be encouraged to prepare and share meals.
Today, Hospice of the Chesapeake employs more than 100 people, including nurses, social workers and chaplains, and more than 300 volunteers. The organization also runs support and bereavement programs for grieving children and teens, for families of homicide and suicide victims, and for former spouses and gays and lesbians who have lost their partners.
"The breadth of the organization is thrilling," says Grauch. She and O'Herlihy no longer run the organization, but still volunteer.
Indeed, Hospice of the Chesapeake has come a long way from its early days when its founders went about their work quietly.
"Death was a very uncomfortable subject then," said Grauch. "People didn't really want to talk about it."
Even now, many people still find death too difficult a subject to face or discuss. Hospice of the Chesapeake has made such conversations more bearable, even pleasant, for patients and their families, in part because of the work the volunteers do.
"It's a privilege to be with a patient and family while they're going through this," said Maria Garvey, a volunteer from Severna Park.
In her 15 years as a volunteer, Garvey has worked with more than 50 patients and their families. Her work has run the gamut from tending to the patients while spouses or other family members run errands to just sitting and talking with the dying. She has also participated in one of the most difficult aspects of volunteering as a hospice worker: the vigil leading up to the death of a patient.
"He never felt alone," said Laurie Buckland, recalling the hospice care that her late husband, Renny, received when he was dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease.
For two years, in 2002 and 2003, hospice volunteers, along with paid medical workers, made daily visits to the Buckland home in Glen Burnie. The volunteers brought movies for Renny to watch, talked to him and repositioned him in his lift chair when his muscles cramped. They read the notes he typed when it became too difficult for him to talk.
He knew he was going to die after he was diagnosed with the neurological illness in 2000. "I knew it, too," said his wife, adding that she is grateful to Hospice of the Chesapeake for helping her husband and her family. "To me, hospice meant 'The End,' " she said. "I didn't know a lot about it, and I didn't want to know."
Laurie Buckland said her husband was not particularly religious, but he became close to the Rev. Christine Kennedy, director of the hospice's Spiritual and Bereavement Care Center.
When her husband died at their Glen Burnie home the morning of the day after Easter last year, Laurie Buckland called Kennedy, who lived 20 minutes away in Baltimore. She got to the Buckland home in 10 minutes.
"She was the first person I thought of," Buckland said.