The realities of dying were always a mystery to me. My parents visited their dying parents in the hospital. I went to the funerals but never felt a sense of being present and supportive of my grandparents during their last days. I was left with childhood memories and a few special objects from their living rooms.
It was during my mother’s last years that I learned about hospice care. I had turned away from physicians who suggested more tests and more surgeries for this elderly patient, now in her ’90s, and I searched for a more caring way to manage her pain during her last months of life.
That search led me to Talya Bloom, the executive director of Weinstein Hospice.
A Conversation With Talya Bloom
Talya was born in Zimbabwe to an Israeli mother and a British father who had met in Palestine. After completing nursing school in Cape Town, South Africa, Talya became a midwife. She moved with her husband and two sons from South Africa to Atlanta in 1986.
“It was very traumatic,” Talya said. “My mother had died of ovarian cancer five months before we immigrated. It was not a good death at the age of 63. It was a fearful, dark time for me. I was left with a fear of dying from that experience.”
It was later in her career while working as an oncology nurse at Northside Hospital that Talya became aware of the similarities in helping people into and out of the world. But it was hospice care that peaked her interest.
She started working with Hospice Atlanta in 1990. The holistic approach that hospice uses to deal with mind, body and spirit changed the way she saw and understood dying.
“It was life-changing. Being dead is not the greatest fear,” she said. “The greater fear is the process of dying: the pain, shortness of breath, angst and sadness. And this can be dealt with and controlled for the most part. Hospice is not about if we will die, but how we will die. Everyone needs to be loved, to be forgiven and to be surrounded by people who care from birth to death.”
Hospice (from “hospitality”) was a guesthouse or hotel of sorts for weary or ill travelers in the Middle Ages. Originating in Europe, it was a place where guests could find rest, shelter and comfort.
The book “On Death and Dying” by Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced the concept of death with choices and dignity, focusing on pain management and specialized care in a person’s home rather than in an institutional setting.
Almost 90 percent of Weinstein Hospice patients receive hospice care at home. The nonprofit Jewish hospice serves approximately 50 percent Jewish and 50 percent non-Jewish patients and receives support from Jews and non-Jews.
Almost half of hospice funds come from individual gifts, tributes and grants.
“It is a remarkable service,” Talya said, “but I fear that many people don’t understand what it is. I want them to understand that hospice, when it is done properly, is an extension of good health care, not a failure of the medical profession.
“There is no cure for dying. The end is a natural part of our lives, and hospice allows nature to take its course. I love my job, working with people whose goal is to help make a person’s last days peaceful and valuable. Our staff, volunteers and board have amazing pride, involvement, commitment and ownership.”
Weinstein Hospice’s Beginnings
In the 1990s, a time of expansion and renovation of the Jewish Home, the executive committee of that nonprofit organization (today Jewish Home Life Communities) realized the need for an added program.
“We had the potential,” Sam Coolik said, “but we didn’t have the money. After some due diligence and a pro forma, I believed we might be able to break even by the third year, but we had to raise funds. I was certain that we would lose money the first few years, but I felt that, with community fundraising, we could satisfy the need.
“We had to prove our worth in the first two or three years. I made a motion to approve hospice, and it was approved by the executive committee. In 1998-9, Steve Berman, the Jewish Home president, asked the Weinstein family to give a large gift for something new to benefit the Jewish community, and the Weinsteins became our first funders.
“In 1999 I was asked to be a founding co-president with Faye Siegel. Then we were followed by Diana Silverman. We hand-picked board members from synagogues and looked for diversity on the board. We needed people to spread the word and to provide leadership. All of them are still supporters.”
In September 1999, Weinstein Hospice was certified by the state of Georgia and served its first patient. That October, it was approved for Medicare reimbursement. It has now been 18 years since the founding of Weinstein Hospice.
“We asked Talya Bloom to interview for the executive director position,” Sam said. “She hit the floor running and has been great from Day 1. She is the best. I am proud of her leadership, and I have stayed involved.
“We are recognized for our care of patients and their families, and we are a hospice of choice. We are good for the Jewish and the general community, and we continue to grow. We provide quality service and never deny service to anyone. We want to live within our budgets each year and never have to ask Federation for funding.
“It is important to be self-funding, and we thank our caring funders and our supporting foundations.”
Education and Outreach
“Sam Coolik and I were co-presidents of the Vi and Milton Weinstein Hospice and were dedicated to hospice, a brand-new program brought to us by Eve Levine and Debra Beard,” Faye Siegel said. “But we soon found that people shuddered and pulled away from the conversation about dying.
“So our first challenge was to provide outreach and education for our Jewish community and our medical community. I am proud to say I was there in the beginning. Our community has benefited from Weinstein Hospice. Patients can choose to die just as they lived, Jewishly and with dignity.”
Faye credited Talya Bloom with being a committed mover and shaker and applauded the volunteers who work directly with and provide caring support to patients.
“A patient with no living family can choose to die with dignity in their own home because of the volunteers and medical staff of Weinstein Hospice, who serve both the Jewish and non-Jewish community,” she said.
The New Leader
Weinstein Hospice’s office and business manager, Cory Shaw, soon will succeed Talya as the executive director.
Cory reminded me that, while the business office and clinical and administrative headquarters are in the campus of Jewish Home Life Communities, hospice is not a place. It is a type of care.
“It’s about how we live until we die. It’s about having hospice as an option that allows us to die at home surrounded by the people we love. It’s an amazing place to work,” Cory said.
“I have worked with Talya for five years, and I want to maintain and grow what she created. Talya is a fighter, and it has been a privilege to work for her. Talya may be small in stature, but she is fearless and passionate. I have big shoes to fill.”