In April we celebrate National Volunteer Month and the nearly 1,700 volunteers who provide life-changing care, support and comfort for our community. Each year we honor the very best with our Volunteer of the Year Awards.
The Mary J. Labyak Legacy Award is the highest honor bestowed on volunteers. You might say it is a lifetime service award. And when it comes to Suncoast Hospice, Mary Jean Etten, EdD, APRN, CMP, FT, is a lifetime service award personified.
Suncoast’s longest-serving volunteer, Dr. Etten was among the original group of pioneers who started what became Suncoast Hospice. She has spent the past 45 years volunteering through her service on the board of directors. As the chair of the board’s search and screening committee, Dr. Etten recommended Labyak’s hiring as CEO in 1983. During the next 29 years, Dr. Etten worked closely with Labyak to lead the organization through a period of tremendous change and growth. Labyak died in 2012.
“It touched me very, very deeply,” Etten said of receiving the award. “It brought her back, and I really felt she was there. Of any award I’ve experienced, that has been just the most meaningful to me. She was an extraordinary woman, and she did extraordinary things. It was just such an honor to get that award.”
A former nun who became a nursing professor at St. Petersburg College, Dr. Etten joined Miriam “Bunny” Flarsheim, Henry Flarsheim, Rev. B. Kong Han, Professor Keith Irwin and Funeral Director Jack Adcock at the first meeting about starting a hospice in 1976. Dr. Etten has been a Suncoast Hospice fixture ever since.
“I became aware that in hospitals, people were having terrible deaths,” Dr. Etten said. “Nobody was tending to them, hardly. People didn’t know what to
do. Pain and symptoms weren’t controlled. The family was kept apart, everything the opposite of what we believe in hospice. That greatly disturbed me. When this call came, I thought, ‘I better get over there.’
“As we talked, there wasn’t any question we would do this. We decided that night we were going to start a hospice. It was kind of nuts, when you think about it, because we didn’t know what we were doing. It was almost a calling to have that happen. It is with us today.”
Dr. Etten has served on the following board of directors: Suncoast Hospice, Suncoast Institute and Empath Health. She has served the Governance Committee since 1998. While serving on the Suncoast Board for over four decades, she has been instrumental in providing support as the organization faced different challenges both within our local community and nationally.
In 1989, Suncoast Hospice lost its only administrative building to a devastating fire. Dr. Etten was the lead person in fundraising to rebuild. It was only fitting that in November 2012 Suncoast unveiled the naming of the “Dr. Mary Jean Etten Center for Caring” at the current Clearwater campus in recognition of her contributions. She co-authored “A Caring Sanctuary – Suncoast Hospice: Forty Years of Caring” to commem¬orate Suncoast Hospice’s 40th anniversary. Dr. Etten also is a board-certified music practitioner, and she has played piano and sung for Suncoast patients and loved ones.
“Mary Jean Etten has served as a beacon of inspiration for many individuals, like myself, who want to be pioneers in the future of hospice care,” Empath Health Volunteer Services Director Melissa More said. “Seeing the challenges she and others have overcome puts things in perspective. Through hard work, collaboration and perseverance we can continue to innovate how we serve others.”
Though she says the founders never could have imagined that Suncoast Hospice would become one of the country’s largest non-profit hospices, Dr. Etten is proud that Suncoast remains committed to the mission of serving patients and those who love them.
“I’m very happy about that. I hope we continue that forever,” she said. “It’s the real essence of who we are. I’m proud of our staff and volunteers. We’ve had exceptional people and do have exceptional people. I still believe it’s a calling to be employed and to volunteer at hospice. It’s so special.”
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