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Sentimental Journey Program: Granting Hospice Patients an Everlasting Wish

People living with terminally ill diseases often spend their time reminiscing about an earlier time in their lives, imagining their favorite landscape and tracing back step by step the last time they were with the people they love outside of hospice care. For Steve Tolen, a Plumas County resident and longtime area paramedic, it was reminiscing of his beloved Silver Lake. Prior to his terminal cancer diagnosis, Steve dreamed of establishing a Sentimental Journey Program in the Plumas County area.

The Sentimental Journey program is dedicated to granting terminally ill patients one last wish. Think back to your favorite memories and why they’re important to you. You might remember walking through a trail surrounded by hundreds of trees or sitting beside your loved ones in your favorite part of town as you watched the sunset or it might be as simple as remembering the smell of your favorite home-cooked meal coming from the kitchen. The Sentimental Journey program is dedicated to taking hospice patients to the places where they’ve had their most meaningful life experiences or taking them to see a loved one and helping them reconnect for the last time.   

The program first began in Colorado in 1993 when paramedics Steve Barry and Kim Madison were transferring a hospice patient. When they noticed he was trying to look out the window, they didn’t think twice before taking him down a beautiful road so he could see the fall colors of the Colorado aspens one last time. Barry was quoted as saying, “Even though I had lived in these mountains my entire life, the first time I really saw an aspen was through a dying man’s eyes.” This experience is where the program took its first step. From then on, Barry and Madison dedicated their time to creating this program to fulfill hospice patients’ dreams of making one last trip to see a loved one or to visit a place that marked important times in their lives – free of charge. 

With Steve’s life coming to an end, Sam Blesse, EMS Supervisor for Care Flight Ground, decided to continue with his efforts to implement the program in Quincy, CA.  Blesse met Steve in the late 1980s and had trained with him in the beginning of his career when he was 18 years old and even though he moved away from the area for 17 years, they stayed in touch. When they moved back into the area, Blesse and his wife Ashley, who was the ER and Emergency Services Manager for Plumas District Hospital, were in constant contact with Steve and knew that the program held a special meaning in his life due to his diagnosis.

“When Steve was in the final phase of his disease, I made it a priority to try and get something together,” said Blesse. In October of 2017, they drove Steve along with five of his six children on what was his last trip to his beloved Silver Lake. Steve passed away less than 18 hours after that trip but the memory will last another lifetime for his children and the people who helped make his dream come true. 

The Sentimental Journey program has now been adopted in 33 states and has just recently been incorporated in Plumas County making Steve and his children the first family to go on this life-changing trip in that area. After Steve’s passing, Blesse and the Care Flight organization along with the support of Plumas District Hospital have successfully established the program only 18 months after that first trip. This involved creating the policies and guidelines for the organization, patients and caregivers as well as creating a process with the Sheriff and Coroner. 

“The crew members and I volunteer our time for these trips,” said Blesse. “It’s really meaningful to be able to participate in something like this. Steve was very confused when we first picked him up, but when we got to the location, he knew exactly where he was and he was at peace. Plus, it had a profound and positive impact on his children – they created such meaningful memories together one last time.”  

The program will be in full effect starting this month. Terminally ill patients, their family or their caregivers can fill out an application to request a trip. Since there is currently not a traditional hospice care program in Plumas County, patients must meet certain criteria to be accepted into the program. More information regarding trips and protocol is provided upon submitting an application. 

Applications are available through Discharge Planning at Plumas District Hospital or the Plumas Community Hospice. You can also email Sam Blesse at sblesse@remsa-cf.com or contact the Care Flight Plumas Manager on call at (530) 927-9140.

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