A Dying Wish

Peggy Quinn wanted to make death easier on the terminally ill, but she's made life hard on everyone else.

"There were alternatives," Berzins admits. "But they had a high degree of risk. We did not feel at all comfortable rolling the dice. We were dealing with human lives. We had to make decisions not in the best interest of the founder, but in the best interest of the organization and its mission, which is to care for these elders."

The board held off on its decision to sell the Denver home, but on March 31, the Boulder home closed, and the two residents who hadn't made other arrangements, Jong Shim and Wanda, moved in with Quinn and Henderson.

Peggy Quinn now takes care of Wanda, a former Anam Chara resident, in her home.
Anthony Camera
Peggy Quinn now takes care of Wanda, a former Anam Chara resident, in her home.

Bezuidenhout knows how it must look: The president and CEO of a for-profit hospice that has always planned to open a residential care facility of its own serving on the board of a struggling nonprofit that already owns two such homes. But she says her intentions were always honorable.

Bezuidenhout began working in the hospice industry in 1985. But she was always troubled by people's impression of hospice care. "Our society is death-defying and death-denying. We're scared to death of death, and people think hospice equals death," she says. "That attitude was a motivating factor for starting Namaste. We wanted to open up care for people scared of hospice."

So three years ago, Bezuidenhout, along with a doctor, two social workers and a nurse, started Namaste Comfort Care. The word "namaste" is a Sanskrit greeting meaning "the divine inside of me bows to the divine inside of you." It was just the phrase they wanted to describe their business of honoring people at the end of their lives. Bezuidenhout and her partners originally wanted to form a nonprofit, but she says banks wouldn't loan them money because they weren't established yet, so Namaste incorporated as a for-profit instead.

"We mortgaged our houses and cars to start it," she says. "I personally put $50,000 on high-interest credit cards to start it. I'm so in debt I can't even tell you."

Namaste offers much more than just hospice care: People who have been diagnosed with a serious or terminal illness but who don't necessarily have fewer than six months to live can take advantage of a program in which Namaste employees help clients handle the decisions and tasks associated with their illness. Namaste will teach them about treatment options, refer them to doctors, help them apply for Medicare and Medicaid, assist them with living arrangements and show them how to write wills. Seriously ill people can also enroll, for free, in a six-week workshop in which they learn how to find information about their illness, develop questions to ask their doctors and weigh the pros and cons of their end-of-life options.

Through Namaste, Medicaid and private-pay patients can also be paired with a personal-care provider who goes into a patient's home to offer companionship and do household chores that the patient can no longer perform. While other hospices are struggling to cover the high costs of medical care for patients who are with them only a short time, Namaste is making a small profit. (In fact, the company just received the Emerging Business of the Year Award from the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.) Bezuidenhout's strategy is to attract people before they're gravely ill; they aren't as frightened, and, as a result, tend to sign up with her business sooner and remain longer. Her patients typically stay in hospice ten times longer than the median nineteen days of other Colorado hospices.

Namaste employs 55 people and has had approximately 550 clients since its inception. Employees care for patients in their homes, in homeless shelters, on the streets and in personal-care boarding homes such as Anam Chara. The only thing Namaste lacks is a residential care facility of its own. Bezuidenhout says she didn't set out to take over Quinn's business: "I never considered buying the home or entering into a long-term relationship with Anam Chara -- that wasn't in my business plan." She says her desire to open a home "existed long before I met Peggy."

That meeting actually took place in November 1998; one of Namaste's first clients was a woman living in the Boulder Anam Chara home. "We've had a strong relationship with them ever since -- we've referred clients to them and they've referred clients to us," Bezuidenhout says. "Both organizations see themselves as agents of social change. So when Kert [Hubin] called and asked me to be part of the board, I agreed. I knew when I joined the board that Anam Chara was making it on a wing and a prayer."

Despite what Bezuidenhout says, Quinn wonders whether she was planning to take advantage of Anam Chara's weak financial position -- as well as Quinn's trust -- all along. And for the last couple of months, Quinn has portrayed Bezuidenhout as a conniving businesswoman concerned only with her own bottom line to anyone who would listen, including out-of-state friends and relatives who responded with a barrage of vicious and threatening e-mails and phone calls to Bezuidenhout and other boardmembers.

"Peggy has tried to polarize this issue as a greedy for-profit trying to consume a nonprofit, which is not the case," Bezuidenhout says. "That has made me really sad; in fact, it's made me cry."

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