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Helping To Ease Dying

Vienna group oversees 25th Hospice Cup, raising awareness and funds for hospice care.

When Vienna resident Jean Kluttz was in college in the ‘60s, she read a magazine article about the British phenomenon of hospice care, the practice of helping the terminally ill to make the most of their last months and die comfortably in their homes. “I thought that was a great idea,” she said. “I also read that it was being resisted in this area.”

Years later, in the early ‘80s, she was a member of the Shearwater Sailing Club, based in Annapolis, Md., when the club began managing the Hospice Cup, a sailboat regatta that raised money for early hospices in the D.C. area. The undertaking “fit this little, budding interest that had laid dormant” in her, she said.

The fund-raising effort, which is coordinated by the Vienna-based Hospice Cup Inc., will run its 25th annual race on Sept. 9, and Kluttz has served as a Hospice Cup Inc. board member and is now the president of the National Hospice Regatta Alliance. She still helps with the local race through the sailing club.

SHEARWATER MANAGES the race, the hospices are largely responsible for fund-raising, and Hospice Cup Inc. oversees the entire effort. The national alliance helps start new regattas and coordinates the annual national championship.

Last year, the Hospice Cup raised about $550,000 for hospice organizations throughout Northern Virginia, D.C. and Maryland. There are now two-dozen other regattas nationwide raising money for hospice care, and they were all inspired by the annual event in Annapolis.

The Hospice Cup was founded by Northern Virginia native Virginia Brown, who now has a home in McLean. A volunteer fund-raising committee for the emerging local hospice movement had been calling known fund-raisers in the area, and Brown had recently organized a black-tie affair for the American Heart Association.

Her first husband had died at home a few years earlier. “I realized how lucky we were to be able to take care of him at home,” she said, adding that he was ill for about a year and a half. “I wanted other people to know how possible that is, no matter how sick the person is,” she said. So she agreed to organize a fund-raiser.

But she did not want to stage another typical gala. “I just wanted to do something outdoors,” said Brown. A friend of hers suggested a sailboat race. “We put the whole thing together in about a week,” she said of that first race.

Later, after the Hospice Cup was an established annual event, its organizers began to get calls from groups in other parts of the country that wanted to try the idea. Brown volunteered to act as an ambassador. Because she has a large and well-dispersed family, Brown said, “it was easy for me to travel around the country and form other groups.” In 1999, she created the national alliance.

Kluttz said the purpose of the event is twofold: to raise money for hospice organizations and to raise public awareness about them. “The race reaches out to more people than a dinner would. More people hear about it,” she said. “There are a lot of people out there who don’t even know that hospice care exists and that it’s totally independent of the ability to pay.”

ONE OF THE HOSPICES that benefits from the race is Capital Hospice, which has its headquarters in Falls Church. A nonprofit organization, most of its services are paid for by Medicare and insurance, said communications director Spencer Levine. These include medications, equipment and house calls by an “interdisciplinary team” of a physician, a nurse, a medical social worker, a home care aid, a dietician and, if desired, a spiritual counselor. However, he said, some patients may not have insurance or may be too young to have Medicare.

“We don’t turn away anyone who seeks our care,” he said. “What allows us to do that is the generosity of the communities that we serve.”

Moreover, other services that are not usually covered include those for the family of the patient. “The thing with Capital Hospice care is that we treat the whole family as a patient,” said Levine. Grief and loss services, including short summer camps for children and support groups for adults, continue for 13 months after the death of a loved one. These, too, are made possible by charitable contributions.

Common misconceptions about hospice care, said Kluttz, include the idea that it is only for cancer or AIDS patients or only for the elderly or that it amounts to “giving up.” “It’s not so much about death as it is about life,” she said, noting that hospice caregivers can help patients get their affairs in order, tie up loose ends in their lives and make the most of their remaining months.

Levine said anyone with a prognosis of six months or less is eligible for care.

Brown told the story of a woman who had been a gourmet chef and whose husband wanted to provide her with some of her favorite dishes as she was dying, but he did not know how to cook. The hospice was able to find cooks to do the shopping and prepare meals. “With each patient, the care is totally different,” she said.

SHE EQUATED hospice caregivers with a sailboat team. Sailing, she said, requires self-confidence, teamwork and trust in one’s fellow teammates, because it can be a risky affair. “So often, as I meet teams of caregivers in hospice, I see that same trust,” she said, noting that the preciousness of each patient’s time pushes a team to work quickly and efficiently.

Most of the money raised by the race will not come from the sailing teams themselves but from the spectators, although Kluttz noted that last year’s teams raised about $22,000 in individual sponsorships. Tickets to ride on the spectator boat and attend the post-race party begin at $150 per couple, and sponsorships can be purchased for up to $50,000, which buys a trophy to be awarded in the donor’s name, as well as custom advertising and ticket packages. Also, tickets to the party cost $60 each, and various items, such as posters and polo shirts, are for sale on the race Web site.

On race day, more than 100 sailboats will sail in two separate races, which are expected to last from two to four hours. They will launch from points near Annapolis, which are yet to be determined, depending on the weather. One of the 13 classes sailing will be the Hospice Class, for boaters who are not experienced racers. This class will not use spinnakers, the large, balloon-like sails usually used by racing boats. All racers must have their own boats.

The Shore Party will begin around 4 p.m. at the waterfront estate of Manresa on the Severn River, but parking will be at the David Taylor Research Basin, with shuttle buses running back and forth. The party will feature music, dancing, catered food, a raffle and a live auction.