Bob Phillips-Plona looks back on 25 years with Hospice of the Western Reserve

Director of Residential Services Bob Phillips-Plona has had a front row seat to all the changes that have happened at Hospice of the Western Reserve, not just this year, but since 1995 when he started working with HWR as an infection control consultant. In the 25 years since, he's held different positions and watched the Agency grow. To celebrate, we asked him to share some of his memories.

Originally, Bob worked with HWR as a consultant with an outside firm, and later became the facility coordinator at the Westlake office. He said that after four years with us, he thought that was it: He had completed postgraduate degrees and was looking for new opportunities to use them. At the time, there were no openings at the Agency that were a fit. However, when he was offered the position of Director of Residential Services at Hospice House (now David Simpson Hospice House) he decided to stay. "I couldn't turn down my dream job," he said.

From there it's been a lot of change. Mentor, University Circle, Lakeshore Campus and our current offices on St. Clair Ave. have all served as Headquarters in his time. "I've known four HQ's, and three logos," he said.            

The hospice industry itself has totally changed too. In 1995, "It was a slower pace, for sure. There was a lot more time to do everything. Both with staff and patients," Bob said. "It wasn't uncommon for us to care for someone for six months or more."

He added, "The work is more intense now. You have to get people to come terms to with things in a very, very short period of time."

Where in the past teams we would have weeks and months (or longer) to help families get ready for a death, "Now we have sometimes as few as days to build relationships. It takes its toll, that intensity builds up."

The one constant? "Our staff is amazing."

That change hasn't been all difficult, though. Bob's immediate answer for what's changed the Agency for the better? Technology.

"I'll tell you one thing I don't miss: I used to spend an hour before I got in every day listening to the voicemails."

Each patient update, every follow-up answer to a question, all new questions. All the things we can answer in 30 seconds without even thinking about used to take a full phone call. And lots of paperwork.

"Everything was on paper," Bob explained. "For one patient opening, for everyone to get everything they needed was 60 pieces of paper so each person working with the patient had what they needed. All of that was in a huge folder that everyone had to carry around."

"I got my first 'overgrown typewriter' – what we called our first computers – a few years in," and "none of us knew what to do with them," Bob shared with a laugh.

In those days everything from billing to all our data was done using Enable, a software that "was a leftover from the military and was ancient, even in those days."

Bob remembered the transition period with a smile. "We had staff at the time who didn't know how to use an ATM, let alone a computer," he said. In fact, the best way to teach staff to use a mouse was to have them play solitaire!

All the changing technology has also impacted emergency preparedness – an area Bob's overseen for more than 20 years – in a big way. Compare our current instant alerts and ERT emails to Bob's original emergency response device: "We had a phone tree," and drills consisted of timing "how fast could we get information to the last person in the Agency."

"I remember when we got pagers people thought the world was ending," Bob recalled. "So many people said it would disrupt the time they had with their patients. It was the same thing with phones; now we're inseparable from them. Everything was seen as a barrier at first."

Jokes about the past aside, Bob's sure further advances in technology will keep pushing our industry forward. "That's the future: Not only how we use tech, but how it can improve care. Younger generations will be able to do this way easier."

Bob's watched our patients change from being almost exclusively people living with cancer to the myriad diagnoses we work with today. Along with expanding the illnesses we care for, he pointed out how much more active a role we play in a patient's life.

"We take care of the patient, that used to be a greater focus; now we're much more focused on families and caregivers," and that holistic approach is often the key to providing the best possible care.

Throughout it all, Bob said the most important thing hasn't changed: "The care has always been the best. Through all of this and all the evolution, that's remained."

That's been on full display during maybe the most unprecedented year in his tenure. The COVID-19 pandemic isn't something you can fully prepare for, but, Bob said, that doesn't matter when your team is as dedicated as Hospice of the Western Reserves.

"This is one more time we've adapted, adjusted, changed and re-created ourselves for the times and needs."

But, despite the challenges, Bob's looking toward the future.

"I am waiting to see what we will look like and how we do this work when this is all over and we take off our masks."

Congrats on 25 years of service, Bob!

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More than 1,000 Hospice of the Western Reserve employees and 3,000 volunteers live and work side-by-side in the same neighborhoods with our patients and families. We are privileged to have cared for more than 100,000 Northern Ohioans since our inception.