Special care: Hospice patient numbers drop amid pandemic

Only one visitor is allowed inside at a time. In the event that other visitors arrive, they are checked in and seated in the screened in porch facing the garden to wait for their turn to visit their loved one. During the day there is a 2 hour closure of the facility to disinfect the various areas in the building. (Maricela Rodriguez/Valley Morning Star)

Many residents don’t know special care facility allows visitation.

OLIMITO — When a doctor urged Graciela Mercado to take her husband to hospice, she feared safeguards stemming from the coronavirus would stop the facility from letting her visit Arnold Mercado during his last days.

Like many residents, she didn’t know state guidelines allow loved ones to visit hospice patients in special care facilities during the pandemic.

Since the coronavirus outbreak, many residents have stopped taking their loved ones to hospice because they don’t know special care facilities such as Sunshine Haven allow them to visit patients.

Now, Sunshine Haven, one of 11 special care facilities in Texas, wants residents whose loved ones need hospice care to know they can visit patients while following federal safety guidelines during the pandemic.

“ We know there are patients who need our help,” Veronica Lucio, Sunshine Haven’s executive director, said. “We know they are choosing to keep their terminal loved ones at home out of love.”

Lucio said she wants residents to know Sunshine Haven can help them during their darkest days.

“ We know the difficult burden that can come upon the family to provide safe 24-hour care — those hardships are financial, physical and emotional,” she said. “We’re here to provide relief from that.”

“ The beauty is that the patient is safe and we’re able to care for them. We have a heart. We consider this work sacred. We want to help the patent achieve the highest possible quality of life while with us — and that includes the family.”

Certified nursing assistants staff the facility, following patients’ doctor’s orders.

“ They follow the orders of the hospice agency doctor overseeing the patient,” Lucio said.

Visitors allowed

In July, a doctor at Valley Baptist Medical Center recommended Mercado take her husband to hospice as he entered the final days of his long struggle with diabetes.

“ He was very sick for one year,” Mercado, 74, a former baker from San Benito, said. “I was very concerned that they wouldn’t let me be with him the last days he was alive.”

For four sacred days, she stayed close to her husband’s side.

“ He was able to talk with me a little bit,” she said of her husband, a Vietnam veteran who worked as an insurance agent before retiring as a realtor. “He knew he was going to die. He was very concerned that I was OK (financially) when he died. He said, ‘I want you to be happy. Don’t worry about me — I’m going to heaven.’”

On July 17, her husband of 52 years died at 75.

“ I’m very happy I was with him the last days he was alive,” Mercado said. “It was very important. I wanted to take care of him and hear his voice.”

Residents’ concerns

For years, hospice agencies referred four to seven hospice patients every week to Sunshine Haven, Lucio said.

But since the coronavirus outbreak, she said, the nonprofit funded through donations and grants has seen its weekly numbers drop to one or two patients.

Lucio said many residents don’t know the Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services allows special care facilities like Sunshine Haven to let loved ones visit patients.

“ We know visitation and access to family support is an important part of end-of-life care,” she said.

Now, the facility has set policy to allow patients to receive one visitor at a time from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.

From 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., staff disinfects the building to safeguard against the coronavirus, Lucio said.

Safety steps

Lucio said many residents are also concerned about COVID-19.

To help protect against the coronavirus, the facility has installed ultra-violet lighting known to kill the virus in its air conditioning units, she said.

In patients’ rooms, she said, exhaust fans push all return air outside the facility.

Meanwhile, the facility screens those who enter.

“ All visitors are screened upon arriving, including temperature checks and an exhaustive questionnaire,” Lucio stated. “We require all visitors to arrive with their own face masks and wash their hands for 20 seconds or more before entering the patient’s room and upon exiting.”

The facility also screens patients, requiring hospital transfers test for COVID-19.

“ We screen all patients prior to admitting along with the partnering hospice agencies,” Lucio stated. “We require COVID-19 test results for patients coming from hospitals or other nursing facilities.”

Meanwhile, members of the facility’s staff wear full personal protective equipment.


For nearly 20 years, Sunshine Haven has offered “a peaceful, home-like, loving atmosphere where individuals with a terminal diagnosis may pass in quiet dignity,” its mission statement reads.

In 2000, Lois del Castillo, who had served as administrator of Heart of the Valley Hospice in McAllen and nursing director at the former Brownsville Medical Center, founded the special care facility.

Nestled near the banks of a winding resaca, the renovated ranch house features a wide-open living room whose upright piano stands across from a brick fireplace.

Glass doors open to a long, covered patio overlooking lush tropical foliage tangled in a mesquite thicket.

“ It’s home-like and peaceful,” Lucio said. “It’s beautiful and provides rest of mind, body and rest of heart. About every area of the facility and property are designed to support the patient and loved ones.”