Hospice director recognized for career achievement

Wheaton earns placement in industry’s hall of fame.
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Rene Wheaton. Courtesy Faith Hospice

A longtime local health care professional has received a lifetime achievement award.

Rene Wheaton, executive director of Faith Hospice, Holland Home’s hospice program, was honored with the Michigan Homecare and Hospice Association (MHHA) 2020 Hall of Fame award.

“Rene is a leader among leaders with exceptional career achievements as a nurse, manager and an advocate for change,” said Barry Cargill, president and CEO of MHHA. “Her unselfish contributions to improve the lives of hospice patients at the end of their lives extends beyond her own organization to all across our state and our nation.”

Wheaton is the only medical professional in West Michigan and one of three in the state to receive the Hall of Fame recognition this year. The MHHA began honoring health care professionals with the award in 2014. Since then, there have been 20 individuals who have received the award.

The Hall of Fame was inaugurated to honor those individuals who have excelled in the home care and hospice profession; those who bring honor and recognition to the MHHA; and those who inspire and mentor individuals and students to consider or continue their careers in home care and hospice.

The winners were selected by the MHHA’s board of directors, on which Wheaton once served. The board is made up of owners and managers of home care and hospice agencies in Michigan.

“I am very surprised that I have received this honor,” she said. “This is a lifetime achievement award and it is just one of those things that I never thought was right for me at this time, I guess. I just try to do the best I can every day. I don’t work for awards. I don’t work for those kinds of things. I work for patients and families to have a good experience. We have one opportunity to be with a person as they die. It is just that one time we get to work with them, and I want all those one-times to be what that person wants. That is what I work for.”

Wheaton’s medical career is going on three decades. She has worked at hospitals and nursing homes. In 2003, she joined Holland Home and in 2012, Wheaton officially became the executive director of Faith Hospice.

“When you are in the hospital, you do things on the time frame of the hospital,” she said. “If they say, ‘You are going to have your blood drawn’ and it is 4 o’clock in the morning, they’ll wake you up and you will get your blood drawn at 4 o’clock in the morning. Hospice puts the patient more in charge and to say, ‘I don’t want that treatment anymore, I just want to focus on what is in my life.’ That is what drew me to hospice and that is what I love about it. Families and patients get to spend that quality time together and do the things that are important to the patient. They can say their last goodbyes the way they want to. Sometimes it is going out to dinner for that last anniversary meal. Sometimes it is having a birthday party. Sometimes it is going to the graduation for their grandchildren or being there for the birth of a grandchild. Patients can change the focus of their lives.”

In addition to being the executive director at Faith Hospice, she plays a major role in influencing state and national policy changes. She is the co-chair of MHHA’s Hospice Committee and its Room and Board subcommittee.

“I mostly facilitate discussions with different hospices around the state of Michigan,” she said. “We get together to see how we can do things best and define best practices and problem solve with people who are having a problem within one area or another. It is an opportunity to ask questions and get input from others as far as the regulatory changes that are coming in hospices.”

Wheaton said they spent the last few weeks talking about COVID and about how they are protecting and educating their staff.

She also serves on the Hospice Regulatory Committee for the National Hospice and Palliative Care Association and the Hospice Advisory Committee for the National Association of Home Care and Hospice.

“We look at regulatory changes and what kind of things we would recommend to the association to take to Congress or to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services,” she said. “One of the things they are advocating right now is the COVID changes that were made for telehealth or telemedicine to be an option for visits. We are advocating that that should continue and that we could put them on our claims and count them. It is just a different process of how different things that come up for what would make hospice better for patients and families.

“One of the requirements is that if someone is on hospice for longer than six months, every 60 days a nurse practitioner or a physician needs to go out and see that patient and do an assessment that says it is appropriate for them to still be in hospice. That was a face-to-face visit, but with the onset of COVID, they made that an option to be done over a video visit. So that is one of the things that we would want to continue to be able to do.”

Wheaton said the different committees have helped the health care industry evolve. She entered the health care sector around 1990 when, she said, there weren’t many hospices. Those that were operating were mostly nonprofits and community based with far looser regulations. She said in the early 2000s, many for-profit hospices began operating and by 2008 many regulations were rewritten or clarified, which has been of benefit to the industry as a whole.

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