Will County Opinion

Opinion: Joliet’s Joan of Arc wouldn’t turn away from dying kids

David Rutter

Even if the world is a sordid, grim repository of bad souls and worse motives, that makes the existence of Mary Kay Sheehan even more remarkable.

Maybe Joan of Arc is not dead. She’s living in Joliet.

Remarkable people do remarkable things when no one else will. And that’s what she has done.

As CEO of Lightways Hospice, she’s Joliet’s antidote to a grim reflection in our mirror. When others walked away, she would not.

It began when Barrington-centered JourneyCare hospice that serves 750 patients in 13 counties sold out to a Texas conglomerate in February.

JourneyCare’s head of the largest nonprofit hospice in Illinois then called. Would Sheehan’s hospice take 80 JourneyCare children under its care? That would triple Lightways’ child population.

Eighty more dying children? She thought it over for one second and said yes, though her hospice did not have the $750,000 it would take for the care, not the staff depth nor the approval of her board.

She said yes. Just her.

She said she had to.

But it was not a business decision. It was a statement of her heart and soul.

Nine members of JourneyCare’s staff — nurses, life specialists, and even a chaplain — jumped to work for Sheehan. They, too, followed the children who live everywhere from Chicago to the Wisconsin border.

It’s important to note that professionals immersed in juvenile hospice are different from everyone in all the good ways. They are dedicated to adding happiness and peace to lives that soon will be extinguished. It requires staggering psychological strength to be a pediatric hospice nurse who care not only for the children but grieving families.

No one Is cured in hospice except for the curative power of human devotion; 43,000 children die in hospice every year.

Without any public warning, JourneyCare’s board of directors went looking for buyers last fall and found healthcare conglomerate Addus Homecare of Frisco, Texas.

Addus ponied up $85 million.

Addus did not cover hospice for terminal or grievously ill children. End-of-life child care receives only a minor stipend from Medicare to cover what can average $2,000 a day in care.

“When we heard JourneyCare might be up for sale, I even called the broker and suggested we could take JourneyCare. We can do that care,” said Sheehan, who has been in the hospice business for 32 years, got her master’s in oncology nursing from Loyola and master’s in business administration from Northwestern. said. “They laughed at us. Laughed.”

As she described the details, her voice grew edgier.

You sound upset, I said.

I was angry then, she said, “and I’m still angry.”

There are several observations worth making.

Cities have self-defined personalities, but distortions creep into those civic psychologies. The stereotype defines Joliet as a blue-collar, hard-scrabble, mean-street city with lots of sharp edges. Barringtonians are millionaire habitues of well-tended polo grounds, manicured gardens and nature preserves, all enveloped in the ever-so-distinct scent of “noblesse oblige” when it comes to charity. Barringtonians donate gobs of money and take lots of self-generated credit for that.

Indeed the $18.5 million, 16-bed Pepper Family Hospice Care Center on the edge of Barrington was a direct gift by supporters in Barrington, Barrington Hills, South Barrington, Lake Zurich and Deer Park.

As JourneyCare promotions noted: “To create a home-like setting for patients, all suites offer their own patio or walled garden area and the 42,000-square-foot building sits on 6.7 acres surrounded by healing gardens. The CareCenter also offers a library, formal dining room, spa and suites that face a courtyard.”

They even let patients bring pets.

Of the cultural dichotomy, Barrington might have the resource edge in this “Tale of Two Cities” but Joliet didn’t turn its back on 80 dying children.

Plus, Barrington did not have anyone like Sheehan.

Was there a “Plan B” if you didn’t say yes, we asked Sheehan. “Don’t think so. I think they asked other agencies who said no. The JourneyCare board thought it would get the money, but it didn’t. Now there’s a different board of local big contributors. They are going to spend the money on grants.”

Barrington donated millions to JourneyCare over the years because it sold itself as a community-focused charity, though it was not. Not-for-profits are businesses with a special tax status that requires reinvestment of profit into services. Two thirds of hospices are simply commercial outlets that serve end-of-life patients.

Only special people are good at hospice. There are no cures, no rescue from dying. The only prize offered is comfort, care and pain management. And not being alone at the end.

Lightways’ 40th annual fund-raising dinner was Thursday night and took on an added meaning. They will need $350,000.

You should have gone. It’s a way for Will Countians and Joliet to show who they are. Joliet doesn’t run.

But it’s not too late. Joan of Arc takes checks.