By Peter Rice

Pilot Staff Writer

Richard Robert works a 24-hour job.

His work is to make sure that his ailing wife, Lucia, is comfortable and happy as she nears the end of her life.

Lucia, 68, has been very sick for about three and a half years. It started with breast cancer. During treatment, doctors discovered leukemia in her lymph nodes. Later, she lost her voice, developed Alzheimer's and suffered a stroke. She now stays in bed, and can only take fluids. She doesn't recognize Robert.

Richard was worried sick about getting Lucia proper care while still being able to duck out of the house to pick up some groceries or go to the post office occasionally. He was looking into nursing homes, but really wanted to keep her at home.

andquot;It was running me ragged,andquot; he said at his home Tuesday. andquot;It's a very nerve-racking situation when you don't have help.andquot;

Then, some people at the Chetco Senior Center told him about hospice.

Hospice is a generic term for end of life care, focusing on pain management and making sure the patient is comfortable.

Here in Curry County, hospice means a team of nurses, doctors, social workers, and andquot;spiritual coordinatorsandquot; who tend to patients with life -threatening illnesses.

The program is becoming increasingly popular in this county, and across the nation. There are currently 31 patients under care here, and that number usually ranges from 25 to 35. About a year ago, according to the county's hospice patient care coordinator Helen May Riccio, that figure was as low as 11.

About 40 percent of people who die in Curry County are in the program.

For Richard, hospice care means nurses stop by frequently to give Lucia baths, change the bedding and monitor her vital signs and medicine intake.

There is a nurse on call all the time. The other day, a massage therapist even stopped by. Both the caregiver and the patient got a much needed rub down.

andquot;I don't know what I would have done without them,andquot; Robert said. andquot;It's been a lifesaver for me. It really has.andquot;

The program is paid for by Medicare and administered by Curry County Home Health and Hospice.

The increasing enrollment in hospice care stems from more than just the large aged population in Curry County.

Hospice has the unique distinction of being involved with the medical profession and the federal government while still being wildly popular with patients and their families.

Once a family experiences hospice, they're usually converted, and they tell everyone they know.

And with more people taking advantage of hospice care, cultural ideas surrounding death may be in for a change.

The goal of hospice, Riccio said, is to make patients comfortable and maximize their quality of life up to the last breath. But, andquot;What comes out of that goal frequently is we get to help people to accept death,andquot; she said.

andquot;Our society is not kind to death. We sweep it under the table. We don't talk about it,andquot; she said.

That makes some sense: Those who don't fear death are less likely to have descendants. On the other hand, it's not always a helpful state of mind to have about one of the few certainties in life.

It takes time to wrap the mind around death, Riccio said, and everyone - patient or family member - does it differently.

But once it's done, andquot;There's a very peaceful feeling inside,andquot; Riccio said. andquot;It's very freeing.andquot;

After listening to Richard Robert, one gets a better idea of what Riccio means.

andquot;I'm just glad we retired early and she had a chance to enjoy her life,andquot; he said. andquot;We've had a good run.andquot;