Denver Hospice provides ‘a group hug’

Chaplain Keith Swingle is celebrated for 25 years of service

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Denver Hospice Chaplain Keith Swingle said he attended seminary school because he knew he wanted to serve in ministry in some capacity.

He had a friend who did an internship with hospice care, but Swingle didn’t figure that end-of-life care was for him.

But upon finishing seminary school, Swingle realized he was cut out to be a hospice chaplain.

“It is everything I wanted, in terms of one-on-one — meeting with families on their own turf during a vulnerable and helpful time,” Swingle said, adding it gives him “a chance to make a real difference.”

And more than a quarter of a century later, Swingle is still making a difference in peoples’ lives when they need it the most.

Twenty-five years with The Denver Hospice

Swingle has been serving people and families as a hospice chaplain for 28 years this October. Twenty-five of those years have been spent with The Denver Hospice.

“His commitment to patients and families goes above and beyond, with how he supports, listens and cares for our patients and their families,” said Melinda Egging, president of the nonprofit provider of hospice and palliative care. “Keith can be counted on for his smile and his sense of humor - yes, sense of humor during hospice care. Finding grace and humor is important as we walk this journey.”

Egging added that Swingle was the chaplain for her family when her mother-in-law was in hospice.

“He was so gracious and kind. He connected with our family and was a great support,” Egging said. “I know first-hand the important role chaplains like Keith contribute during this important time.”

Swingle, 54, was born and raised in Ohio. He spent 2-1/2 years serving as a hospice chaplain in Ohio before moving to Colorado. He had friends moving to Colorado, and found the job with The Denver Hospice before making the move.

Swingle now lives on Lookout Mountain near Golden. He is married and raising a 14-year-old.

With The Denver Hospice, Swingle serves the north metro area out of The Denver Hospice’s Westminster location.

The Denver Hospice was established in 1978. As a nonprofit, nobody who needs hospice care will be turned away, Swingle said.

The agency serves the entire metro area, with its Inpatient Care Center located at 8299 E. Lowry Blvd. in Denver’s Lowry Field neighborhood.

A minister without a church

A chaplain is a “minister without a church,” someone who doesn’t represent a specific denomination or particular church, Swingle said.

What chaplains do is help people cope with losses, Swingle said. In addition to the loss of a loved one, losses can include a person’s independence, control and role — or, purpose and meaning of life, Swingle said.

“Sometimes, the immediate family can’t, or doesn’t know how to, talk about it with their loved one,” Swingle said.

That’s where a chaplain can help.

Swingle’s visits to patients run the gamut, but the underlying role is to provide a comforting presence. Sometimes, visits are a friendly check-in just to see how the patient doing. Other times, it’s to pray with them. Or, if needed, Swingle will also help with arranging memorial services or connecting a person or their loved ones to a rabbi or Catholic priest.

No matter the reason for Swingle’s visit to a particular patient, it’s always a meaningful visit, he said. His goal: to ensure that all hospice patients “feel well-supported, cared for and that we always have time for them.”

When people are at end-of-life, they need to feel that they have someone to talk to, said LeRoy Baker, administrator of Broomfield Skilled Nursing & Rehabilitation Center.

“When people are transitioning, spiritual needs are just as important as physical needs,” Baker added.

Hospice care is a team effort, Swingle said. He works in a team setting with Registered Nurse (RN) case workers, Certified Nursing Assistants (CNA), social workers and others.

“Keith has always been someone we look up to,” said Rachel Phillips, an RN case manager with The Denver Hospice. “He’s genuine and caring. That’s comforting for the families, but also for us. It’s very calming to have him here.”

‘He does way more than expected’

During the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns, Villagio Senior Living — a memory care community in Broomfield — worked with The Denver Hospice to have a dedicated team provide hospice care for its patients.

“They acted as if they were our own in-house staff,” said Carisa Brown, the community’s executive director. “The Denver Hospice has been vital to our success.”

In addition to tending to patients’ needs, Swingle was sometimes called on to support staff who were struggling or otherwise having a hard time coping, Brown said.

But he also helped in ways well beyond the typical roles of a chaplain.

A while back, a patient who was in clinical isolation at Villagio received a new bed. It was a hospital bed, with all the gadgets, said Tia Abeyta, the wellness director for Villagio.

“This was during the period of time (of the pandemic) when only nurses and CNAs were allowed in,” Abeyta said. “So the equipment company couldn’t come in to assemble it.”

Swingle happened to be there that day, so he geared up in full personal protective equipment to help Abeyta assemble the bed, and they were able to get it put together for the patient.

“He does way more than expected,” Abeyta said.

‘Our dog approved’

David and Alissa Newman of Lakewood had a large Husky dog named Dazbog when David, who was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in August 2017, started hospice care.

While friendly, the dog was never into cuddling. But, on Swingle’s first home visit with the couple, Dazbog went right up to Swingle and greeted him.

And the next thing you knew, David said, Swingle had a 70-pound dog sitting on his lap.

“That’s how we knew we liked Keith,” Alissa said. “Our dog approved.”

David Newman is a 34-year-old Army veteran. He enlisted in October 2005, and did two tours in Afghanistan. He grew up in the Lakewood area, and upon return from the Army, he decided to study engineering at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

He and Alissa met at a CrossFit gym while she was also attending CSU.

David’s original prognosis was 14 months, “so we’ve had much more time,” Alissa said, adding they take every day one at a time. David emphasized how fortunate he feels to have Alissa as his wife.

Alissa cared for her husband at home until the recent COVID-19 restrictions on visitations to care facilities eased.

“It’s been different than getting to see him every day,” she said. But the two video-chat frequently, and Alissa visits in-person as often as she can, between work and her graduate studies. “Dave and I are fortunate to have support groups.”

However, while grateful for it, with all that support comes something that has been particularly challenging for Alissa — the management of everyone who has offered to help, she said.

The Denver Hospice treats people like people, not patients, Alissa said. David’s care team relieves her from what she calls the “mental gymnastics” of managing all of her husband’s needs.

“It’s such a resource to have someone to talk with about spiritual stuff, (and) a hospice team taking care of him,” Alissa said. “It’s like a group hug. I felt, and continue to feel, so supported.”

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