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Suzanne Underhill, 66

Light Hill Comfort Care Home director reflects on a career in medicine, veterans’ advocacy and the essential role of end-of-life care

By Melody Burri

Q: Your career in health care has spanned decades and touched many. Share a bit about your journey.

A: In 1978, I began working at the Canandaigua VA Medical Center as a psychiatric nursing assistant and earned my RN licensure in 1991. My career at the VA spanned 36 years and I held various positions, including charge nurse on an acute medical unit, midnight hospital nursing supervisor and advanced illness care coordinator. As AICC I worked with veterans as inpatients and outpatients, coordinating palliative and hospice care in the community. I retired from the VA in 2014 to step into my dream role as executive director of Light Hill/Canandaigua Comfort Care Home, Inc.

Q: What led you to invest yourself fully in end-of-life care and help launch Light Hill?

A: Experiencing personal losses — my mother, father, brother and a miscarriage —taught me quite different lessons. I took the time I needed to feel and process my losses, realizing each of these unique experiences left me with very rich gifts. I intended to give meaning and purpose to those I loved by utilizing their gifts and what I learned, to help others navigate and make a little more sense out of such a painful and challenging time.

Q: What’s one common misconception people have about hospice care?

A: A big misconception regarding hospice is that you should wait as long as possible before accepting hospice care. For many, the term ‘hospice’ means all hope is gone and you are giving up on life. Hospice is not about hastening death or prolonging life. It is supportive care to promote quality of life until death occurs. Unfortunately, people are often in crisis before considering hospice support. If people accept hospice support earlier in their disease trajectory, they have the potential to have quality symptom management promoting comfort, resources through an interdisciplinary team offering guidance and often a significant decrease in stress for the individual and their loved ones.

Q: Comfort care is hard work, but your passion for it never seems to waver. Why is that?

A: It is my philosophy that we are spiritual beings composed of energy within a physical form. I believe that each person I meet shares their energy with me and I with them. I feel rich from all those whom I have encountered. I live each day with gratitude from deep within, knowing that life is fragile. I experience life with a greater appreciation and a heightened awareness of the beauty surrounding me. I do this not only for myself but for all those I carry with me.

Q: What hobbies outside of work help you unwind and keep you fueled up?

A: I enjoy playing in the dirt — gardening, being out in nature, experiencing the beauty and solitude, walking with my husband and sharing family time. Cooking, reading, and camping are also pleasures. To keep me fueled up I participate in a morning boot camp class at Tall Trainer in Canandaigua. This has helped me immensely both physically and mentally. By starting my day in this way, I relieve stress through physical activity while working towards becoming a better version of myself. This helps to maintain good health and invigorates me.

Q: What core value has kept you focused and on track through the years?

A: I believe in being true to who I am as a unique individual. I find it much easier to be myself than trying to become someone I am not. Finding joy in the moment in what I am doing, promoting kindness, health, and wellbeing, having a strong work ethic, and striving to do my best has helped me accomplish some of my dreams and keeps me happy and content.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: I am not sure what the timing for retirement is yet. I love what I am doing and have the energy to keep doing it a while longer. A succession plan has been created for when the moment seems right for me to step away. For now, I’m enjoying spending time with the residents, their families and my amazing Light Hill family of volunteers and staff.

Top image: Suzanne Underhill lives in Cheshire, a hamlet in the town of Canandaigua, with her husband Steve and a cat named Blue.