To most, death is taboo. To Lesley Sacks, it's a sacred experience.
Sacks, a licensed clinical social worker, was hired in February as the executive director of Hopewell House, a nonprofit hospice care home slated to reopen this fall.
Her hire, followed by the acquisition of the 13-bed Hillsdale property on March 17 for $2.5 million, are key steps toward welcoming patients and families back through the doors of the hospice facility that's been shuttered since 2019.
"All aspects of the life experience can be found within the death process," Sacks said. "It's such an important time of life. We really celebrate life when it begins, but death is something we avoid talking about or processing."
Over the past two years, a group of board members called Friends of Hopewell House have raised $4 million of the group's $5 million goal to buy the home from its former owner, Legacy Health, and start making renovations before hiring staff. It's the only residential hospice facility in Portland.
Sizable donations from philanthropists Priscilla Bernard Wieden, Joe Weston, the Marcia H. Randall Foundation and MJ Murdock Charitable Trust helped breathe new life into Hopewell House. In all, more than 1,200 donors contributed to the nonprofit's fundraising goal.
Legacy operated Hopewell House as a specialty hospital for patients on hospice until 2019, when the site discontinued patient care due to dwindling funding. Sacks said changes in Medicare reimbursement rules and constraints of Legacy's license made it untenable to continue to operate.
The closure left a gap in the availability of quality, end-of-life care.
Friends of Hopewell House said its financial plan is a "tested, collaborative, more efficient, and financially viable model."
"We really are there to specialize in caring for the people with the highest need and fewest options," said Susan Hearn, outgoing co-executive director of Friends of Hopewell House. Hearn said roughly half the patients who will receive care there when it reopens will be subsidized, thanks to donors.
A steady stream of philanthropy will be needed to continue Hopewell House's model of care.
"Over time, we expect to be entirely self-funded through endowment and revenue," Hearn said. "We want Hopewell House to be here for many generations."
The property will undergo renovations and re-licensing as a residential care facility for patients with terminal illness. Hopewell House aims to begin accepting patients in early fall.
Residents at Hopewell House will receive specialized, 24/7 end-of-life care. Most will stay an average of two to three weeks. Hearn said a stay at Hopewell House will cost about a tenth of what it typically costs to die in a hospital.
Providing end-of-life care isn't for everyone, Sacks admits, but comforting families through grief and patients through death has its own rewards.
"Really, where my passion lies is sitting with families and helping them understand what's happening around death," Sacks said. "I think a lot of folks who don't always work in hospice don't always see the joy in hospice care. It's a time of coming together, sharing memories. There's a lot of laughter amongst the tears."
Prior to joining Hopewell House, she worked for seven years at a hospice care facility and prior to that, she spent 10 years at Cedar Sinai Park's Robison Jewish Health Center.
Sacks said there is physical and emotional complexity to preparing for death, or the death of a loved one.
"I think the sacred experience that is death really speaks to me," she said. "It's a feeling of honor to be included in someone's moment, this time at the end of their life."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.