Here’s part five of our 40th Anniversary Reflections series celebrating our 40 years of life-changing care through Suncoast Hospice and Empath Health. It’s our honor to support and uplift patients and families in their journeys.
Q&A: Susan Bruno, MSW, ACSW, LCSW
Suncoast Hospice Director of Social Work Practice
1. What’s your background?
I got my master’s degree in social work from Syracuse University. I served as director of social services at a New York healthcare facility for three years. My husband got a teaching opportunity at USF (University of South Florida), so we moved here to Florida. I did social work in hospital and nursing home settings for about five years.
At a professor’s Christmas party I met this lovely gentleman, who was the board chairman of Suncoast Hospice, at that time called Hospice Care, Inc. He said he’d ask Mary Labyak if she wanted to talk with me about a social work position. Mary, who oversaw the social workers and eventually rose to become longtime president and CEO at Suncoast Hospice, interviewed me and I was hired for the job in 1982.
2. Why did you go into your fields?
Social work’s in my blood; my aunt was a social worker and my influence. When I was 12, I decided I wanted to become a social worker, too. At the healthcare facility I first worked for, I’d wonder what happened to the families after their loved ones died. I was interested in hospice care because of the commitment to care for families who were grieving. I was young when I started in the hospice field and didn’t know if I was going to like it.
3. How have you evolved in your career?
I started at Suncoast Hospice as one of three social workers, became the social services coordinator three months later for a year and then became the program director for more than eight years. As a program director, I oversaw all clinical staff, education, quality, volunteer services and board and advisory committees. We had 650 people in our care and our organization needed more energy and people to think about things in different ways. My position was divided into several new positions. That was a good thing.
I had opportunities to learn and grow, so I left here in 1991 to work as a development director and a director of psycho-social services, social work counseling, bereavement, chaplains and volunteers at what’s now known as VITAS Healthcare. Later, I worked as head of a small home health agency for the now Edward White Hospital; vice president of business development marketing for the now LifePath Hospice; as well as started a nonprofit that provided prostate cancer education.
I returned here in 2001 to become the director of business development at Suncoast Hospice Institute. Mary Labyak envisioned us becoming an international training center for other hospices and organizations. We built our products, consulting and national trainings and grew our business and sales. Our leadership also wanted to do more online learning, so we developed our learning management system with online courses for customers and for education for our staff and volunteers. In 2015, I came back to the hospice side as the director of social work practice. I’m happy.
4. Who do you work with now and what’s your vision?
I work with smart, driven and caring people on all levels. Our regional program directors are phenomenal. I’m honored to represent our social workers and bereavement counselors, a group of skilled and compassionate professionals who make such a difference in the lives of patients and families. This staff has rolled up their sleeves, hit it out of the park and been happy and empowered as they’ve grown. We do case reviews with our teams and I listen to them and think, wow. I don’t directly supervise our staff at our care centers, but they excel in those environments with great needs.
We’ve made a concerted effort to bring in younger social workers who are newly out of school. We require an added layer of licensure, which we believe raises the bar for our counseling and social work practice. Part of my vision is to help create the hospice of the future, the hospice that’s going to take care of me. I’m running from the moment I get here, answering emails and calls until 6:30 at night. This job has been the right move for me.
5. What was your work like then versus now?
When I first started we were so busy trying to explain what hospice was to people. Our patients were very different at that time. The length of stay was short, but many times patients did well receiving our comfort care. Now people oftentimes come in at the brink of death.
6. How has the hospice industry changed?
The regulatory requirements. Back in the day, we were a movement that grew out of a vision to provide better care for the dying. We were seen as the radicals of the health care establishment and we tried to be recognized as a legitimate service. As our hospice care industry got larger, we became more accountable to a level of quality and integrity that the establishment deemed necessary. You can’t have a mission without margin because you want to be here tomorrow. You have to make financial decisions but also put your patients and families first.
7. What are our greatest strengths as an organization?
One strength is our history. We started off as a mission-focused hospice as the experts in terminal illness and grief and we’ve maintained that through the years. We’ve been a visionary leader, hearing that the community needed us to be more than hospice, so we added many new programs. I think we’ve moved into second gear, becoming one of the pilot sites for the Medicare Care Choices Model national program and expanding our ground-breaking programs under Empath Health, including palliative care; Suncoast PACE (Program of All-Inclusive Senior Care) care and support services; EPIC (Empath Partners in Care) HIV care and support services; and more.
Our volunteers are a huge strength. We have a commitment to volunteers and the roles that they play, which keeps us humble and connected to the community. Our staff and volunteers consistently put our patients and families first.
8. What’s most meaningful about your work?
My voice counts in this organization, and that’s really important to me. I’ve made incredible friends across different departments.
9. What are your favorite memories?
There are so many memories. One of my favorite ones is visiting Hospice Wits, our sister hospice in Soweto, South Africa. I feel honored to have been part of that amazing experience.
It also has been nice getting to know my colleagues as people outside of work. I have wonderful memories of our annual employee retreats that helped us renew and recharge ourselves to do this work, as well as our potluck gatherings that created a sense of sharing. Going out on visits with my teammates and our volunteers and sitting vigil at the bedsides of our dying patients are more of my favorite memories.
Other great memories are running bereavement groups, attending conferences and doing presentations. Mary Jean Etten, one of our founding volunteers, and I once presented in Minneapolis at a conference for NHPCO (National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization), known then as National Hospice Organization.
10. What lessons have you learned?
I’ve learned when to speak up and when to stay silent. And some people find that humorous because I don’t stay silent very often. I need to listen to the voices around me because there’s so much wisdom. On the management side, I learned that when people come to talk with me they don’t necessarily need me to solve their problems. I could be supportive by just listening.
11. Do you have any final thoughts?
For more than 35 years, this has been my life and a family affair. My husband always has been at my side. We and our staff have helped cook and serve at volunteer appreciation dinners. And we’ve done a volleyball tournament and other fundraisers together. The employee appreciation days at the ballpark are another opportunity to weave your family into your work life. I think it makes it easier when your family’s involved.
Have a special memory about your hospice care or bereavement support? Please share it below.