Susan Bruno, MSW, Regional Program Director for Suncoast Hospice

Susan Bruno, MSW, regional program director for Suncoast Hospice, a member of Empath Health, has spent the last 40 years caring for others, 30 of those years have been with Suncoast Hospice. Now, she is looking forward to retirement with a theme of self-care.

Meditation and reflection, golf, volunteering and travel are all in the plans for her post-hospice career days. Before Bruno signs off from her Hawaiian Zoom background for the last time, she sat down to talk about her legacy at Suncoast Hospice and the impact it has had on her life.

What has your journey with Suncoast Hospice looked like?

I came to Florida in December of 1981 after earning my Master of Social Work. I didn’t know anyone here, so my parents took me to a Christmas party. There I met the chairman of the board for Suncoast Hospice. We talked and eventually he said he would have then Hospice Program Director Mary Labyak call me. Sure enough, she did. I was hired right away as a social services coordinator. A year later I was promoted to program director.

We had about 68 patients in our care when I started and by the time I left in November of 1991 we were serving 650 patients. It was an exciting time with a lot of growth. We had to move offices several times because we would outgrow the location.

When I had the opportunity to take a position at another hospice, I took it as a leap of faith and a chance to learn new things. My departure also offered a growth opportunity for Suncoast Hospice. After 10 years at different hospices, I came back in 2001 into the Suncoast Institute. This division doesn’t exist anymore, but it offered education and consultations for other hospices and national trainings. Eventually we had an online learning catalog of 80 courses. As the market changed that was phased out and in 2015 I became Suncoast Hospice’s director of social work practice. I held that position until there was a need for me to step in as the regional program director for south Pinellas County.

What inspired you to work in the hospice field for so long?

Hospice was a very new concept in 1981 when I moved here from New York. I was working in long-term care and one thing that always bothered me was what happened when people died. We would spend time talking to the family and then walk them to the front door and they would leave. I would always wonder how they were doing. There wasn’t a hospice or grief group to refer people to. You just hoped they had a support system.

The initial draw to hospice was how the patient and family are looked at as one unit of care. Grief support is an integral part. That philosophy attracted me and has kept me coming back. Little did I think when I walked in on day one that I would be here 40 years later.

How have you seen hospice evolve over the years that you’ve been in the field?

Hospice care has evolved tremendously. For many years it was not on the radar of Medicare. We were considered rebels and rabble-rousers, an offshoot of the healthcare system. Caring for the mind, body and spirit was not necessarily where medicine was at the time.

Suncoast Hospice was at the beginning as one of the demonstration sites for Medicare. We went from not being noticed, to wanting to be a part of a system where hospice is considered an extension of the healthcare spectrum. We got our wish and have grown and provided care to thousands of patients and families just in Pinellas County. With that enormous change we needed to become more sophisticated and regulatory compliance-focused, recognizing we are under the microscope of Medicare and the community.

Change has always been a part of us. We have always adapted and tried new things. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be where we are today and for that I’m really proud. Our pioneering spirit can’t be stopped.

How has Suncoast Hospice left a mark on the community?

In the ‘80s and ‘90s we were always trying to explain what hospice care is. We were introducing the idea that patients have options for care and helping them verbalize their wishes. Today, it’s very rare that you talk about hospice and someone doesn’t know what it is. People know it is a true option and there are ways to be cared for without focusing on cure. We’ve created that understanding in this community and changed healthcare for so many through our presence.

Do you have any interesting stories from your time here?

I’ll never forget the night the building caught on fire. I had just come home from a trip to Tallahassee working with other Florida hospices and legislators. Around four in the morning I was awakened by a call that hospice was burning. I thought I was still dreaming.

I woke my husband and started getting dressed. At the time I wore a skirt suit, high heels and stockings to work every day. My husband questioned why I was dressing like that and I realized I had no idea what you wear to a fire. I was still in shock. I did grab a change of clothes and started driving. About 5 or 6 miles away from the office you could see and smell the smoke. The building was still in flames when I got there.

I remember asking the CEO, Mary Labyak, what we were going to do. She looked at me and said, “You’re the program director. You’re in charge of figuring this out. Start calling people.”

It was that moment complete leadership tied together. She was working to get help from the community, and I was giving out orders to staff and volunteers to reassure patients. A core group of volunteers began pulling together every piece of paper that could be found so we could keep doing our job. We didn’t need a building, we just needed to keep going.

How has Suncoast Hospice impacted your life?

Working for Suncoast Hospice has transformed me and my life. I’ve learned so much from our patients and families. Through that I made the decision now is the time to retire. One thing I hear patients and families say is how they were waiting for the “right time” to take a trip or make a change and then they get a diagnosis and there is no more time left. I don’t want time to run out and not have experienced more.

I’ve loved working here. My goal was always to hire the very best. There are many wonderful and talented people here to carry on the legacy.

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