Over the past few decades Suncoast Hospice, a member of Empath Health, has grown from a small organization to a community mainstay reaching across the Tampa Bay area. As the organization has evolved, so has its employees.

One of those is Marci Pruitt, Vice President of Suncoast Hospice. In her role she oversees the many aspects of hospice care including patient care teams, crisis care, inpatient care centers, supplemental staffing, integrative medicine, bereavement, social work and spiritual care. After 33 years with the organization, Pruitt will be retiring in early July.

As she looks forward to days spent relaxing and fishing on the dock of her lake house, we look back at her career with Suncoast Hospice.

What has your journey with Suncoast Hospice looked like?

I first started in 1985 as a staff nurse with direct patient care. At that time, the office was still located in Pinellas Park and our average daily census was around 100 patients – a fraction of what we serve today.

After a couple of years I left to accept a leadership position at a local intensive care unit but soon returned as a care team manager to start our fifth interdisciplinary team, the purple team. Through a series of promotions, I helped to start our pharmacy, infusions and durable medical equipment programs. These were wonderful decisions that have allowed Suncoast Hospice to offer high-quality services directly to patients and families.

Early on we offered a “hospice house,” a small six-bedroom residence in Clearwater, to provide inpatient care. Eventually we sold that location and I was a part of opening what is now the Mid-Pinellas Care Center.

In 2007, I became Vice President of Suncoast Hospice. It’s been a great journey having been on the ground floor of starting a lot of programs.

What inspired you to work for us?

Before graduating from the University of Pittsburg, one of my projects was to study On Death and Dying, a book by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who was a pioneer in the study of death and grief. It was my first introduction to hospice care.

After nursing school, I became a critical care nurse here in Florida. Being a critical care nurse is not so different from being a hospice nurse – we work with families in trauma and very ill patients. There is a lot of death. Eventually, I started feeling ICU burnout and was looking to pursue something different. At that time, the Suncoast Hospice office was near where I lived. I always had to drive past that office and decided to give it a try.

I interviewed with Susan Bruno, who is still with the organization. She shared that they had never hired a nurse coming from a critical care background before and we were able to have a conversation about the similarities between ICU and hospice care. Susan hired me as a care team manager after that.

What was hospice care like back when you first started? How has it evolved over the years?

Back then, hospice was new in the healthcare arena. We saw ourselves as rebels and trailblazers, helping to develop what hospice care would look like. Suncoast Hospice served as one of the original demonstration projects for CMS (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services). Not long after I started hospice care was approved for Medicare reimbursement.

The biggest change is hospice has become a part of mainstream healthcare. That has brought both good and bad aspects. The good is we are recognized as a respected service and people know what we are about. However, an influx of for-profit providers have brought challenges to the landscape.

Though technology and the ways we are able to deliver care has evolved over the years, the basic philosophy hasn’t changed – patients and their families are at the center of it all.

How do you feel Suncoast Hospice has impacted the community?

When I first started death was kind of a taboo topic. The hospice movement has made it a subject more people are now willing to confront and discuss.

In the early 2000s we made the momentous decision to admit Terri Schiavo into our care. We felt like it was the right thing to do, even amid the controversy. This propelled not only our community, but the nation into discussions about the need and value for advance directives.

We do a lot of outreach into the community with our liaisons to the African American, Hispanic and Jewish groups. Suncoast Hospice continues to offer general education to anyone who wants to know more about hospice care and our services.

The onset of COVID-19 brought another opportunity for us to step up and I’m so proud of this organization. We never really missed a beat. Though they were anxious and weary at times, our staff fearlessly continued to provide care to the most vulnerable population.

Do you have any interesting stories or favorite memories?

I have such wonderful memories of the people I’ve gotten to work with. We’ve laughed together, we’ve cried together. Every day brings something new. I don’t think I would have been able to work with a group of people who are so dedicated and passionate anywhere else.

Back in the day, everybody’s spouses volunteered here. My husband built our first holiday booth in the mall. Both of my kids grew up as volunteers. My son now works for the fire department in Tallahassee and he carries the lessons learned with him in his difficult job.

What has kept you coming back all these years?

The people, the volunteers and the passion for the work. It’s good to feel like you’ve had a career where you’ve made a difference in the community. As a nonprofit, our stakeholders are our community. We are more than just basic hospice here and I like that a lot. We go beyond what the regulations require and offer additional services like integrative medicine, pet therapy and others we have developed over the years.

I had the honor of supervising the volunteer department for a time. This is a group that really sets us apart. They are an integral part of what we do. Suncoast Hospice was started by volunteers and it has remained an important part of our tradition.

Here we respect the decisions of each patient and family and allow them to form their plan of care. Those we’ve cared for over the years have been our best teachers. It is a sacred honor to be with patients at this time in their life.