Focus on Katherine Coutrakon

By Hilary Decent

Katherine Coutrakon finds inspiration in the darkest of places. You might even say death becomes her.

Katherine Coutrakon

As a licensed clinical social worker with almost 40 years’ experience, she helps the terminally ill in their weeks and also grieving families. The experiences have taught her a lot, she says.

“It’s inspiring to see people dealing with the purity of their life. They know they are going and they just want to be peaceful. That’s when death is at its best,” she said from her office with Affiliates in Counseling in downtown Naperville. “It teaches you to show up for life, to stay in the moment.”

Coutrakon began specializing in hospice care after her mother passed away 17 years ago. For the past three years, she’s been working with Angels Grace Hospice in Bolingbrook. Despite her years of counseling others, the intensity of pain she felt after her mother died took her breath away.

“I knew it would hurt, but I didn’t expect it to feel so bad,” she said.

Coutrakon credits her mother with instilling in her a lifelong desire to help others. By doing so, she believes she’s fulfilling her legacy, something she recommends to grieving families.

“We were very close,” she said. “She died in my home just a few days after coming to live with me.”

Her mother grew up in Crete during World War II. After an arranged marriage to an American, she came to Chicago, where she had four children before her husband died.

“She grew up with death all around her. She knew something about pain,” Coutrakon said. “She said, ‘God will always bring somebody to help you, but you never know who it’s going to be. It may not be who you think it’s going to be.’”

Although the family had little money, Coutrakon’s mother always helped her neighbors and delighted in cooking for them all.

“She was like the first social worker,” Coutrakon said. “Death was all around her in Crete, then it followed her here, but she raised us all to be good citizens.”

All her siblings are in caring professions. Coutrakon does not shy away from other people’s pain.

“People are inspiring. They deal with unimaginable pain and trauma with grace,” she said.

While working in California, Coutrakon remembers one particularly tragic case. After a young mother was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer, she met with both her and her family regularly.

“By the time I met her, she was referred to hospice and no more treatment was available,” Coutrakon said, adding that typically patients begin by hoping for a cure, but if they discover their days are limited, they hope for a peaceful death.

The patient had a mother, ex-husband and three children between the ages of 11 and 16. Coutrakon encouraged her to write letters to them, making her intentions clear about how she would like them to continue their lives without her.

“When you work in hospice care, you have a team around you, which helps you stay neutral,” she said. “Your job is to help others, so you have to be client-centered. They have needs which have to be met so their life can move in the direction it needs to go. This involves a lot of legacy work with honest, difficult conversations with family members. This particular family had deep faith, so the parents used the time to teach spiritual beliefs to their children.”

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Interview with Jasmin

Jasmin Aguilar

JasminIt takes a special person to be a CNA and I have the incredible opportunity every day to work alongside our very own Jasmin Aguilar. Jasmin began her career in 2012 and has been with Angels Grace Hospice for the past seven years. Taking care of others started at an early age for Jasmin. She recalls even as a child in all her activities of ballet, dance, gymnastics that whenever a child was hurt, she was always the first to help. This compassion towards others resonated throughout her childhood and became her path for her career now.

What was fascinating to learn about my co-worker was how much she enjoys her one-on-one time with each and every patient. Jasmine loves to make sure that each and every day her patients not only feel their best but also look their best.

“It always makes me smile when I see how happy my patients are. I would do anything for each and every one of my patients that I have the pleasure of caring for.”

Jasmin and Terry have two beautiful children; their son Jayden and daughter Adriana. Jasmin and Terry are raising their kids with the same values of compassion and love that she exemplifies in her everyday work life. When asked to share words that she lives by, she shared the following: Do things for people not because of who they are or what they do in return, but because of who you are.

By Deirdre Schultze-Czajkowski, Director – Business Development

Interview with Barb Newton

Barb Newton

It goes beyond words how lovely my visit with Barb was as we sat down to discuss her personal journey in her field. Barb has been a hospice nurse for the past twenty years; the last five being spent with us at Angels Grace Hospice. It was heartwarming to hear that Barb became interested in hospice while taking care of her Aunt Marie who was terminally ill. For Barb, she has always had a special connection for those on their next journey and discovered the love and compassion for this career.

Barb was blessed to meet her husband through her career as a hospice nurse. Joe is a Chaplain at Angels Grace Hospice and together, they are also the owners of our very own pet therapy dog Mizuno. She has two lovely children; her son is a rocky mountain home builder and her daughter is a nurse.

Our lovely visit ended with Barb giving me the quote she treasures by Mother Teresa:

“Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing”.

Interview with Marilyn Colley, RN, CHPN

Marilyn Colley, RN, CHPN

Mother, Grandmother, Hospice Nurse, and Administrator

Marilyn S. Colley started as an oncology nurse with a dream to become a hospice nurse, which she has been since 1994. She was certified as a Certified Hospice and Palliative Nurse “CHPN” in 1996.

“Hospice was always my heart’s desire. Both of my parents died too young of cancer. They died before hospice was available in the US (prior to 1983). They both died in pain and with no support to our family. It breaks my heart that anyone would have to die that way. We know so much more now about end-of-life care.

It is always such an honor and privilege to be allowed into a patient’s home and life when they are really doing the work of saying goodbye. We get one chance to make a difference.

We employ highly trained professionals who also have a passion for hospice and then support them so they can do the work they are called to do.”

Q: How did you become involved in Hospice?
Marilyn ColleyI have been a hospice nurse since 1996. I started as an oncology nurse; this gave me a good clinical foundation for my hospice work. In hospice, you are the eyes and ears for the doctor and interventions are based on your assessment. My parents both passed away without Hospice support, as hospice didn’t exist officially in the U.S. until 1982. At the time, I was graduating high school, I had an older brother, my younger brother was 12 years old, and my sister was 10. There wasn’t a hospice team to check on how everyone was doing, have the hard, uncomfortable conversations or help us prepare. I makes me sad, as I know my parents could have been more comfortable and my family could have used the support of a hospice team.

Q: Why is Angels Grace Hospice a special place to work?
I actually thought of leaving hospice because I felt that no one was doing Hospice Care the way it should be done…with the family and patient first. Angels Grace Hospice embraces the philosophy of; take care of your employees and they will be able to provide the best for the patients we serve. Our care is not based on numbers or productivity, but on needs of the patient and their families. Angels Grace Hospice was built on that foundation, “to comfort always, that is our work” as Administrator, I embrace and carry on that philosophy.

Q: Tell me your favorite Hospice moment?
While working as a field nurse, I was visiting a patient. He did not look well; I called the wife to tell her she might want to come home. The patient looked grey in color, had low blood pressure, and had quit speaking. There were 13 adult children in this family. I was in the home for 4-5 hours to give the family support and ensure pt. was comfortable. One of the sons had recently moved to California and could not afford a plane ticket or didn’t feel he could take off work to come home. The pt was surrounded in love by the rest of his children and wife. Later in the day, I was taking a blood pressure when the pt. opened his eyes, held up his hands and said, “Wait, I’m not ready.” At that point I had been in the home for 7-8 hours. I don’t know who he was talking to, but shortly after, his blood pressure increased and he began to have more color. I stayed for a couple more hours, called the office with my amazing update….finally gave the family my pager and told them to call if any changes occurred. Unbeknownst to the family, the son in California, boss paid for his flight home. The son surprised his family and was able to say goodbye to his father, who died about 15 minutes later. Did the pt. know all of that was in the works? No way to know, but what a gift for all of us!

Q: What is your job title? And what is a typical day like?
I am the Hospice Administrator and oversee the program. In a small agency, staff wear many hats. I can wear a hat as a compliance officer, I can fill in as a clinical director to help solve clinical problems, I am compliance officer and I fill in as a nurse administrator on call. Today, I am preparing information for joint commission.

Q: What do you want people to know about Angels Grace Hospice?
Angels Grace Hospice has grown by leaps and bounds, all by the great reputation we have earned, yet, we continue to have the philosophy of a small agency, EVERYONE makes a difference, EVERYONE counts. We can change a policy or procedure in a day or two if needed, we use the regulations to set the standard for care and then work to exceed those standards. The staff have the opportunity to come into my office or any of the leadership group to talk to me about anything … a challenging case, frustration with a policy or procedure… or maybe, just to share how their day is going. Even though we have grown, we still maintain an open door/ need your input, company policy. Engaging with staff is so important, they are the folks in the trenches, the real heroes of Angels Grace Hospice.

Thank you, Marilyn.

Glorious Unfolding

Every Wednesday morning, at our office we have an Interdisciplinary Group Meeting in our conference room. We discuss, one-by-one, each of the patients’ cases. It is fascinating – especially if you’ve had any medical training – or ever wanted to have any of it.

We open and close each of these IDG meetings with something special such as a poem or a prayer. But at the last IDG meeting we closed with a song.

It was of special significance because it was the favorite of a patient who had recently passed. She was a young woman and had been with Angels Grace for a long time. Most everyone around the table knew her (or of her) and her struggle… and ultimately of her peace. Everyone shared their memories of her and we played her favorite song.

It brought us peace and comfort and we want to share it with you…