PARAMUS, N.J. — In honor of National Hospice and Palliative Care Month, Valley Hospice marked 40 years of expertise in providing a compassionate and well-informed approach to end-of-life care with a special celebration at the rotunda at the Neiman Marcus entrance of the Garden State Plaza Mall in Paramus on Thursday, November 14. 

“The hospice program formed the foundation of Valley Homecare,” said Mike Azzarra, previous CEO of The Valley Health System. “And we would not have a home care program if the seeds of it were not planted in the hospice program. It’s tough work, but important work, and we’re all beneficiaries of it.” 

For 32 years, Valley Home Care on Essex Road, has prided itself on delivering high-quality healthcare services and compassion to patients. It is one of the largest home care agencies in New Jersey, and serves north of 12,000 inhabitants of Bergen and Passaic Counties every year.  

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Valley Hospice, which is located on the same campus, began in 1979 as Northwest Bergen Hospice, offering hospice services, pain and symptom relief, physical, occupational and speech therapy, wound care, spiritual support, bereavement services and holistic modalities including aromatherapy and guided imagery, pet and art therapy for adults and children among many other services.

“The hospice program formed the foundation of Valley Homecare,” said Mike Azzarra, past CEO of The Valley Health System. “And we would not have a home care program if the seeds of it were not planted in the hospice program.”

“We’ve had so much growth,” recalls Joanna Hannon, Hospice director and a registered nurse. “We’ve developed programs. In the art therapy program, kids who are dealing with a parent or family member with a serious illness, they’re allowed to come in and do some art therapy and express themselves.”

Music therapy, she added, is also practiced at Valley Hospice along with various holistic therapies utilizing essential oils to help patients reduce their need for medication. A registered nurse for the past 38 years, Hannon has worked with Valley Hospice since 1988, and has witnessed its remarkable evolution, especially with its now-defunct “Project Outreach,” which was a program geared towards the AIDS population when very little was known at the time about the virus in terms of its nature and treatment.   

“When I started, that’s when we started seeing patients where we couldn’t quite put our hands on what it was,” she said of the autoimmune disease, which is preceded by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). “It’s interesting to see how much it [the program] has evolved.”

For Hannon, hospice is a vocation that found her. A home care nurse from upstate New York, she worked with Valley Homecare when she relocated to the Garden State and, after making her rounds for all the entities, Valley Hospice included, it wasn’t long, she said, before she was “drawn over to that corner.”   

“You’re going to find that the people who do this will tell you, we do this because we can’t change what’s going to happen, but we can change the journey on the way,” said Hannon.“When people figure out how do you see yourself at the end… they want to be surrounded by friends, they want to be surrounded by family. And a lot of times, they end up in emergency rooms, going up to an ICU, being treated, treated, treated, and they didn’t get what they envision, so we step in and help. There are times when you can’t treat something … how much do you do before you stop doing? It’s not even that we stop doing, we start doing other things.”

Susan Geier, who is part of the Hospice Outreach, recalled a time in her career when she intuited that a tired elderly woman in her 80s was tired of fighting and helped her family make the best decision about how she’d spend her final days. 

“A patient had been in the hospital for a month. The family was struggling with decision-making. I met with them, and they decided to bring her home on hospice. And she really wanted to go home,” said Geier. “And we brought her home, and she was so comfortable at home and happy to be home that she passed away within a few days, peacefully and happy with our nurse present. It just was a beautiful situation because we did exactly what the patient wanted and the family wanted. And we enabled her to be home where she wanted to be, comfortably.”

Hannon says she derives joy in working in hospice, despite the obvious toughness of her job. It is, after all, human nature to step in and be there.   

“You make a connection with a person and you make a difference in how they’re journey hopefully will take them to a more positive place or give them some comfort,” Hannon explained. “Humans by nature want to help each other. At the end of the day they’re like, ‘that was a great day.’ We do want to give to each other. We do want to care for each other. And we will make a human connection with each other. Knowing that I’m going to make a difference, and I’m going to be there for you and I’m going to listen to you.” 

Before a crowd of physicians, volunteers, and other staff employees, who mingled and enjoyed healthy hors d'oeuvres at Thursday night’s celebration during which poignant pop songs wafted through the air, Donna Fry, president of Valley Home Care, said in her opening address that she attributed the success of Valley Hospice to Azzarra.   

“It all began with a very small agency and the vision of Mike Azzarra,” she said. “Mike is one of the most visionary, future-thinking leaders I’ve ever met and I know that probably everybody in the room feels exactly the same. Years ago, before health care systems were even thinking of the importance of continuum of care, Mike saw the shifts the hospital and health care systems were making to early discharges to community-based care, to care at-home, and he brought both home care and hospice into the Valley Health System. He’s always supporting and recognizing our team, at-home care and hospice, and he really recognized it was very important to have the post-acute home care-based component and hospice component to our health care system.”   

Fry thanked the physicians, facility partners and referral sources for their loyalty and caring for their patients. 

“Our programs and success is all because of the vision, support, compassion and dedication of our staff, administration, donors, trustees, physicians and partners,” she said.

Hannon also thanked her fellow "cronies" in the audience whom she said she had driven with at 2 a.m. in the dead of winter on call, an endeavor she remarked as having built character. 

"We’re very happy to be there part of the Valley Health System," said Hannon. "We remain dedicated to the quality and to the innovation, and most importantly, to provide the best care to our patients and their families. The end of life deserves as much beauty, care, and respect as the beginning.”