Image above: Mary J. Labyak at the NHPCO Gala 2009
"I think hospice is the greatest single honor that has ever occurred in my life. To have the opportunity to be a part of building something that makes such a difference to society. And I think what is really important is that hospice is a dream that’s come true, and a dream that’s grown beyond all of our expectations.
In terms of values, it’s a dream that didn’t come out of academia, it didn’t come out of research, it didn’t come out of organized medicine. It was the dream of people themselves that had lost a loved one and simply wanted to reach out and see if they could make that path different for others. And it was above all about human dignity, no matter how long life was.
And I think it has grown so much not because we were smart in building it, but because we had the capacity to listen to what our patients and communities needed and to build that for them." Mary J. Labyak, CEO, SUNCOAST HOSPICE
Watch the interview I did with her in 2011.
Mary took charge of this social movement called hospice and lived her life boldly, giving herself fully to her cause, embracing the unknown and giving voice to those without one. She spoke for those whose path in life was shortened and often fraught with pain. She gave voice to those who wanted to say, “Stop!” and to those who wanted to say “Bring it on” in terms of treatments for their life- threatening illnesses. She gave voice to the average person, who worked, kept house, fed and nurtured children, paid bills, grocery shopped and accomplished all those things we do automatically…while caring for a gravely ill partner, or child or parent or friend.
She gave voice to the voiceless and honored every single one of them with dignity and grace, regardless of their station in life, or understanding or acceptance of their ultimate demise. Mary understood clearly that dying people - human beings - should not be categorized into a diagnosis or a job title or a class; she saw each person as part of this great family of man (and woman). She knew if we paid attention to physical ailments alone, we would only know them as if by a number.
She also knew that unless we helped to relieve physical pain, the other parts of life could not be tended to.
Mary wanted to know what people loved, what music made them smile, what brought laughter to their lips, what fun consisted of, what dreams they dreamed in the quiet moments of life. She was concerned about all those normal things in life that get lost for people in their struggle at the end of life. For Mary, Hospice was never about simply health care. It was human being care, friendship… indeed, it was love.
The genius of Mary was that she inspired us to want to know these things as well.
Her engagement of her community was miraculous, but she knew that unless it was people taking care of their neighbors, supporting and lending helping hands, hospice would be simply health care. People helping each other in times of need…standing beside another, not in front or behind, but next to a fellow human on their final journey, providing strength, encouragement, wisdom, and comfort.
Mary was a person of strength for me and so many others. She was our hospice worker: offering guidance on our path, wisdom and courage to keep moving forward, and strength when the future was uncertain. She showed us the way with her light. She gave us her all; her grace, her goodness, her balance and fairness, her wisdom from her larger perspective. She embodied the cause she helped to create.
It is now our job to remember who we are, what our cause is and what we stand for. Her memory continues to show us the way. What a great privilege to have been her friend.
Mary J. Labyak [August 27, 1948 - February 4, 2012]