Christy Whitney was 23 years old when she got her first gig as a nurse in Chicago in 1976 at Elmhurst Memorial Hospital. She was a short time removed from being a graduate at Elmhurst College (today its Elmhurst University) with undergraduate degrees in psychology and nursing.
She was your typical graduate — fresh out of school and in her first job in a field she pursued. But her first impressions were arduous: patients at Elmhurst were lonely and in a lot of pain. Nurses offered pain medicine but could only do so in intervals. Pain management wasn’t effective.
She saw family members argue and build mountains of stress from seeing loved ones in such pain.
“It was hard to be a nurse and watch your patients in pain and wishing their grandchildren could be there or their dog or whatever it might be,” Whitney said. “It was really awful. A lot of families had such stress from the experience of their loved ones dying in the hospital that they kind of just came apart.”
In the early 1970s, hospice care didn’t exist in the U.S. But a movement had begun overseas in England where pediatricians where learning about hospice care and wondering why it wasn’t in practice.
Whitney moved to Durango in 1978, four years after Florence Wald and a group of doctors and nurses founded the Connecticut Hospice, the first of its kind in the states.
But Whitney, after two years in the field, was set on leaving nursing.
“I just kind of had it,” she said. “I didn’t like it. I didn’t feel like it was well organized and I just didn’t want to do it for a living.”
Before she made a decision, her friend, Anna Glennie, offered a proposal: “Why don’t you come help me start this hospice?,” Glennie asked the 25-year-old Whitney.
Wanting to help her best friend, Whitney accepted the offer.
“I loved it,” Whitney said. “I loved the nursing (part of it) and the team.”
Working alongside Glennie and others, Whitney’s passion for the profession sparked once again. Volunteers elevated the experience with their friendship and support.
A family experience added to her desire to help others. Her mother-in-law died on the floor she worked on at the hospice. She witnessed how the death affected the family.
“When I think about how bad that experience was, it’s very motivating to keep trying to make it be different for people,” she said.
Little did Whitney know that about 15 years later, she would be at the start of a near 30-year run doing just that for families on the Western Slope of Colorado. She founded and opened HopeWest, a hospice in Grand Junction that today serves Mesa, Montrose, Delta, Ouray and Rio Blanco counties.
Whitney retired from her position as HopeWest CEO last week. One of her last acts as CEO was introducing her successor, Cassie Mitchell, at the Black Tie and Boots Gala last Saturday. It closed the chapter on a venture Whitney started in 1993.
“I think we have close to 100 patients in Montrose, and I never would have dreamed it would be that big — never,” Whitney said. “I think it really just shows how invested people are in hospice and that they know it could help them. They’re not afraid of it and getting the kind of support (they need).”
A near half-century run
Whitney was 17 years into her career when she was recruited to serve as CEO of Capital Caring, a hospice that serves northern Virginia and the metro D.C. area. She previously worked her way up the ladder during her 12 years in Durango and became vice president of clinical services and acting CEO at Mercy Medical Center.
Prior to her move to the east coast, she began building a lengthy portfolio. Including her run as vice president and CEO at Mercy Medical, she was the lead author of Hospice Nursing Standards and was named the Colorado Nurses Association District Nurse of the Year in the late 1980s.
She also pursued and secured a master’s degree in community health nursing at University of Colorado Denver. In 1989, she became a member of the board of directors at the Western Colorado Health Education Center.
During her time as CEO of Capital Caring she continued to serve on boards and was involved in other community initiatives and groups, two of which were national organizations.
Each experience and endeavor was setting the stage for the birth of Hospice and Palliative Care of Western Colorado, which is known today as HopeWest.
After opening an office in Grand Junction in 1993, she was asked by a friend, Tyler Erickson, to open an office in Montrose. Erickson, a hospital administrator in Montrose, knew Whitney during her time in Durango and of the need for hospice care in the area.
Erickson had moved from Cortez to Montrose around the same time Whitney moved to Grand Junction from D.C. They were already set to meet and catch up, but Erickson’s request planted the seed for the opening of the Montrose office in 1995.
“If he hadn’t been the one to be the hospital administrator at that particular point in time, I don’t know if we would have ever (opened in Montrose),” Whitney said. “A lot of coincidences come together in life.”
Whitney, busy handling day-to-day operations in Grand Junction, couldn’t offer the time commitment necessary to open the office and thought waiting a few more years to raise some money was best.
Erickson told her money wouldn’t be a problem, and it wasn’t. He and Sandy Head and others coordinated an effort to raise $100,000 to open the office.
Whitney is glad they did — the Montrose HopeWest office today is a four-minute walk away from the hospital, which allows HopeWest staff quick access to provide hospice palliative care support to hospital patients.
The office also has a grief center for adults and kids.
“It’s really a testament more to the communitie’s investment into the program rather than me sitting in Grand Junction,” Whitney said. “It’s really the Montrose community that’s built that program.”
HopeWest Montrose has become a hospice “anchor” of a larger institution, Whitney said, helping lead to “robust and sustainable hospice care.”
“Without HopeWest, there would not really be robust hospice care provided in our section of the state,” Whitney said. “The fact that we bring hospice care to Ouray, Montrose, Delta, Mesa County and Meeker is probably one of the most significant things HopeWest has done.”
With two offices on the Western Slope active, Whitney was able to lend support and identify how to innovate hospice care while pondering a third office location — Delta. She helped create Heirlooms for Hospice, a store designed to serve as an introduction between the community and hospice care.
Over the next ten years, she continued to serve on committees and boards while HopeWest racked up awards for its service to the community.
Between 2010 and 2020, she held numerous roles with professional organizations. In 2012, she was appointed by then-Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper to serve as a board member for the Caring for Colorado Foundation, which sought to create equity and well-being for children and families across the state.
In 2017, she was a consultant and spoke about hospice and palliative care for a minister of health task group in Norway. This year she provided further consultation on a national partnership for hospice innovation.
Another of Whitney’s highlights during the decade was the development of an international grief model. She worked with leaders from Taiwan and Singapore through the international work group on death, dying and bereavement.
She sat in a room for a week with professors and the head of the hospice association in Singapore.
“We couldn’t believe there wasn’t a model,” Whitney said, “We did (develop a model) and it was the most fascinating thing.”
Evolution of hospice care and next steps
Whitney still has to pinch herself when she realizes how far hospice care has come since her start in 1976.
“The fact that it’s called an industry now is remarkable,” Whitney said. “When I got involved in hospice, it was called a movement. … It’s hard to fathom it even happened.”
She said hospice care has become more embraced today since it’s been more understood. It has changed from its early perception, which HopeWest has helped push forward.
“Changing it to be a program that helps you live the best you can for as long as you have is a different kind of notion,” Whitney said. “So I think we’ve been successful in that and I think that’s a good thing.”
Whitney is confident HopeWest will continue that notion with Mitchell, who has worked in health care for 27 years as a trained certified nursing assistant and registered nurse. She has spent 20 of those years assisting families and patients through hospice care. She was the COO of Bluegrass Care Navigators in Kentucky before joining HopeWest.
“I don’t think we could have done better,” Whitney said of finding Mitchell as her successor. “I’m very relieved and excited for her. She has a leadership style similar to mine and she’s a strong leader.”
As for Whitney, she is set to open The Spero Group, a consulting company.
In Latin, spero means “hope.”
Josue Perez is a staff writer for the Montrose Daily Press