South Africa trip opens eyes for hospice 'ambassadors'

Published: Tuesday, October 8, 2013 at 5:10 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, October 8, 2013 at 5:10 p.m.

If nurses in the United States weren't paid for a couple of months, it probably wouldn't take them too long to walk off the job.

But in South Africa, pay delays are commonplace, and they don't stop nurses from walking 20-30 miles each week to care for patients.

That kind of dedication left a deep impression on a group of Hospice health care workers from Gainesville who traveled to South Africa during an exchange last month.

The partnership between Gainesville's Haven Hospice and the Hospice in Grahamstown, South Africa, started more than a decade ago, but this year marked the first time that Haven staff, called "ambassadors," traveled to Grahamstown.

Ambassador Katie Alpahando, a senior social worker with Haven, said she was most impressed by patients' gratitude there.

Alpahando recalled giving sick children toys and candy.

"All of it was sweetly received," she said. "Each of them had one McDonald's toy, and one little girl held it onto her heart like it was $1,000."

That level of gratitude surprised the ambassadors, especially compared to some of their experiences here. Ambassador Pam Giebeig, an RN, said, "A lot of our patients and families here expect everything in a heartbeat."

That can be especially true in end-of-life situations, where family tensions can run high. But the Hospice motto is that each day is a gift, and bereavement counselor Vonceil Levine said "We literally saw that," in South Africa.

Levine said some patients lived in homes with dirt floors and walls that didn't have water or electricity. "Yet a care worker in a little car brought out hope," she added.

Haven Hospice president Tim Bowen said that the organization last year raised $10,000 for the Hospice in Grahamstown, and they expect to exceed that this year.

Bowen said that even a $10 donation "can go a lot farther than we anticipated a decade ago."

"What we've come to realize is what seems so small to us is really significant to them," he said.

Levine added that $15 will feed a family of four for a month in Grahamstown; $130 will pay the salary of a full-time caregiver for a month.

Bowen added that although the two Hospice centers are a world apart and face different challenges, "in both circumstances the staff are undaunted in those challenges," and passion and commitment to patients characterize both, he said. "The resoluteness of the staff is remarkably similar."

Contact Kristine Crane at 338-3119 or

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