Mary Rezin has been on a spiritual journey that she says is time to end. After a 35-year career at Tomah Health, including 25-years as the first and only director of the hospital’s Hospice Touch program, Rezin will retire March 31.
“It makes me want to cry,” Rezin said of her final day and retirement. “It has been such a part of me; I love the work and I am going to miss the people.”
Rezin first took an interest in Hospice while working as a registered nurse in the hospital’s medical / surgical department in 1987. She began volunteering for Hospice when it was a local volunteer organization known as Tomah’s Open Unified Caring Hands or ‘Touch’ which was organized and coordinated by Ellen Carmichael of Tomah.
“I didn’t know Mary Rezin well when she signed up for my volunteer training session,” Carmichael recalled. “As our time together continued, I grew to respect the person that she was on the inside.” Carmichael said Rezin was the “pioneer” that took the Hospice concept of care and integrated it into a formal hospital-based program that was designed for the dying. “The choice to hire Mary to undertake the job of developing the hospice program in Tomah was critical,” said Carmichael. “She succeeded beyond expectations and developed one of the best hospice programs in the state.”
Thanks to a $125,000 federal grant, the volunteer organization transitioned to a full-fledged hospice program as a department of Tomah Health in 1992.
“When the opportunity came to craft a Hospice program for Tomah Health it seemed like it was something I could do, so I said ‘yes’,” recalled Rezin. “I think God had his hand in the picture.”
Due to the success of the earlier program and work of volunteers like Carmichael, Rezin said Hospice was very active in Tomah which was a great asset moving forward.
“I remember the very first patient like it was yesterday,” said Rezin. “We started taking patients mostly in the Tomah area and then expanded it to Mauston and to Adams.” Today the program reaches six counties, including Monroe, Juneau, Adams, Jackson, Vernon and Sauk.
Just like anything new, there were a few bumps along the way, including offices for the program. Rezin remembered moving to various spots over the years, including what was a supply room at the hospital in the beginning. “We had half a supply closet,” Rezin said. “I had to go to a patient room for a phone because we didn’t have a phone yet,” she recalled with a chuckle. “It was a challenge but fun,” she said of the early operations.
It was also about that time that Rezin hired her first employee, and best friend Colleen Langrud.
“She was the best boss you could ever have in the whole world,” said Langrud, who retired her Hospice Social Worker position in 2012. “I cannot say enough about Mary; she’s just one of a kind.” Langrud recalled how she and Rezin agreed they were going to “surrender Hospice to the Lord” in those early years. “We prayed and asked the Lord to just let this (Hospice) be His Hospice and dedicate our work to Him,” explained Langrud. “It really has made a difference with our Hospice.”
While the program continued to grow, Rezin said Hospice went to a new level with the arrival of Phil Stuart as hospital CEO in 1995. “Phil is an amazing man because he is so future-oriented.”
Because of that vision, the hospital purchased a house at the corner of Butts Ave. and Jackson Street – across from Tomah Health – that later became what would be called the Serenity House which opened in 1998.
“Colleen and I had talked to Phil about the idea of a Hospice house, because at the time there were a couple in the state and we knew that we had patients who wanted to stay at home but they all could not do that.” Rezin remembered that Langrud suggested the Serenity House name, which Rezin had mixed feelings, but ironically, Stuart suggested the same name a day later. “Phil and Tomah Health have always emphasized meeting the communities’ needs.”
Rezin said Stuart was also a visionary when the program outgrew the Butts Ave. location and the current 8-bed Serenity House was built in 2011 at 601 Straw St.
Hospice further expanded in 2007 when the program added Life Choices Palliative Care offering medical care for people with serious illnesses. “We had people that we could sign on to Hospice, but sometimes they did not meet Hospice criteria, so then we would have to say, ‘sorry we can’t help you’, but with the Palliative Care program, if they don’t meet criteria, we could say, ‘if you have needs, we can help you with them’.” Rezin said the program has been a great addition to the overall services providing patients with support in the management of symptoms, pain and stress of a serious illness – whatever the diagnosis.
Throughout the years, there were numerous fundraising events, educational series and community programs geared to help educate the public on what the program could do for people at the end of life. “We had wine tasting, beer tasting, dessert buffets, seminars, the Grief Groups and of course the Love Light program.” She said plans are also in the works to mark the silver anniversary of the program this summer. “It will be 25 years in June that the program has been going so it has been quite a milestone.”
Despite the dying and death Rezin has seen in her profession and in her own life, she does not fear it and hopes others do not too. “Hospice- the word itself- scares a lot of people, but we’re kind of a death-denying group of people,” she said. “Most people come to terms at the end of life – that their life is ending and that its ok; and some don’t, but most do. I think it’s a privilege to be able to help them with that.”
Rezin said that privilege is a tribute to the staff, volunteers and partnerships that have allowed Hospice to flourish. “We have so many staff and volunteers that go out into patient’s homes and they all have their own special skills that they want to share with other people. Hospice is not done by one person or two people; it’s a team of dedicated people that are highly skilled in their profession.”
Over the years many more people have been hired to work on the “Team” including nurses, nurse practitioners, physicians, nursing assistants, social workers, chaplains, massage therapist and office staff as well as many more volunteer trainings and volunteers. “Our staff tend to be mature and drawn to the program and work that we do with end of life care. “The Team is what makes it work and we have had an amazing Team,” said Rezin, “and I can safely say that we are the best in the area.”
While quick to thank everyone else for the program and humbled by the many well wishes, hospital officials know the program would not be where it is without her. “If you know Mary you would know that this was not a job, it was a passion,” said Stuart. “When Mary looks back on her career I hope she will realize her legacy. Her legacy is in the many families that were comforted and guided through end of life decisions. With Mary’s leadership and dedication the Hospice team truly has made a difference.”
Rezin said there is no need to worry about the future leadership of the program. Current hospice nurse practitioner Laura Fritz, RN, APNP will assume the director’s position full time April 1. Fritz earned her Master of Science in Nursing and Health Care Practices from the University of Iowa, and obtained a Master of Science-Adult Nurse Practitioner degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “She’s the perfect person for the position; she has great clinical skills and has great people and heart skills, too,” added Rezin.
As for her future, Rezin said she plans to continue volunteering with her church and Bible study programs with area correctional institutions, pluck a few harp strings, as well as spend time with her family and remain active with Hospice by obtaining a degree as a master gardener to help enhance the landscaping at the Serenity House. Thanks to a nearly $5,000 donation from the Jesse Parker Foundation this year, she said, plans for the next few years are in the works to enhance an existing ornamental pond, build a patio with a gas fireplace, and plant additional flower beds and even some fruit trees over the next few years. “We want the outdoors to be as beautiful and comforting as the indoors.”
As for the journey, Rezin said she is appreciative that she was able to do this with her life. “I’m just kind of waiting for God to show me the direction that I’m supposed to go next.”
LEARN MORE ABOUT Tomah Health HOSPICE TOUCH and LIFE CHOICES PALLIATIVE CARE click here