PS_1218 1on1 Darvalics.jpg

Castle Rock Adventist Hospital. Dr. French. March 5, 2018. Photo by Ellen Jaskol.

Dying is a sacred journey, Dawn Darvalics says, and she’s passionate about providing the best end-of-life care for patients. 

“Just as we celebrate birth, I believe the period of dying should also receive that same focus and attention,” she said. “I have seen what a difference hospice and palliative care makes in the lives of so many people. ... The patients’ stories and the differences we make in their lives are so palpable and tangible and real. These experiences satisfy the part of me personally that wants to make a difference in the world.”

As the new president of Pikes Peak Hospice and Palliative Care, Darvalics knows the people who work in hospice “do so because it is a calling. 

“It takes a special kind of person,” she said. “... In health care, much of the industry is quick and quantity-focused. In hospice, we have the opportunity to have relationships with our patients and understand what their goals for care are. We ... address their physical symptoms and their emotional and spiritual needs. It’s something I think is important, needed, and deserved by everyone. It is extremely rewarding.”

Darvalics believes in “servant leadership,” building a vision and working collaboratively with other leaders and employees to reach those goals. 

“I encourage a culture of engagement and interaction. As a team, we set the bar high,” she said. “The care that we deliver is delivered at a very critical time in peoples’ lives. There is no re-do in hospice. It is our responsibility and privilege to get it right the first time. The people we have working at Pikes Peak really have to share a commitment to our mission as an organization to provide the best hospice and palliative care experience as possible.”

Darvalics spoke with the Business Journal about how hospice and palliative care is faring through the pandemic, and about how staff handle dealing with death on a regular basis.  

How long have you been in the Springs?

I am actually going to be relocating to the Springs from Aurora, Colorado, for this new position. I have been working at Pikes Peak Hospice and Palliative Care as interim president since March of 2020.

What is your educational background?

My undergraduate degree is in psychology with a minor in business administration. My master’s is really an intersection of the two. I have advanced education in instructional systems focused on performance improvement through the evaluation of organizational outcomes, processes, and ongoing professional development. 

Tell us about your personal and professional journey.

I have always been called to work that helps human beings — hence my major in psychology. When I graduated from college, I first applied all of the knowledge and experience from my master’s program and positions that I’ve previously held, to my first job. I was working in the Big Five consulting firms — at Arthur Anderson specifically, and then KPMG. In my master’s program, I was working at youth shelters and also worked with individuals convicted of crimes who were deemed incompetent to stand trial. I’ve always been focused on the human aspect of different areas of businesses, so I apply my education to work. I was helping out with organizational transformations, which mainly means large-scale shared services implementations or workforce restructuring and learning and development. ... One day in 2002, I received a phone call from a colleague [working] in hospice care and he was telling me about a national hospice company, VITAS Healthcare, that had an opening and they thought I would be a really good fit. With that, I learned about hospice and interviewed for the job. I was given the opportunity to work in hospice and that’s really a space where you can work with your heart and your mind. That is what I was looking to do; that was very appealing to me. I had a lot of really wonderful mentors during this time, one of which was our chief operating officer, Peggy Pettit. She taught me from the beginning that if you always do what is right for the patient and family, everything else falls into place. The quality of care remains high, your employees are satisfied, and you will see an increase in referrals because the community wants to receive the best possible hospice care. VITAS provided me with an experience that led me to know that hospice care is the only field of health care that I ever want to work in. 

Tell us about the difference between hospice and palliative care.

Hospice is a specialized form of palliative care that is focused on serving patients who have a terminal illness and a prognosis of six months or less. They are interested in comfort care versus curative care. They forgo aggressive curative treatments and instead want the best quality of life for the time the patient has left. For palliative care, it is care for seriously ill patients. Some of their patients are terminally ill as well, but the purpose is to provide pain and symptom management and to facilitate goals of care conversations with patients who really benefit from an understanding of what their different health care options are and what their goals are. A patient receiving palliative care can also receive curative care at the same time. 

Do you find that you take your work home with you? Is there an emotional weight you carry?

Right now, there is so much heaviness in the world, in our state, in our community. All of it is related to COVID and it almost compounds what we’re doing in hospice. For me, I try to focus on the things that bring me joy and peace when I’m not working. I really focus on my family, for example. It’s not uncommon for me to be thinking about specific patient or family situations and always wondering and planning for how we can do more and serve that patient and family best. It is important to me to meet them where they’re at in their journey. I encourage our staff to provide direct patient care and to focus on the good things, like what we do have.

Our staff caring for terminally ill patients day in and day out, it takes an emotional toll on them. We really focus on the positive changes that we make, as well as the lasting impressions we make on family members. Every single day, they make a significant difference in the lives of so many people. I always tell them, when you lay your head down at night, rest assured that you have given so much — and in return, you’ve received so much. 

How has COVID-19 affected your ability to safely carry out your work?

It has certainly forced us to be flexible and adaptable and stay on top of all of the changes that are coming out from the governor’s office. Staying on top of the COVID statistics, data and [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines, we have focused on our infection control procedures. We have provided extensive training on topics such as [personal protective equipment] for our staff. We have implemented social distancing insomuch that our interdisciplinary group meetings are conducted virtually. We’ve significantly limited gatherings and we’ve really been cautious for both our staff and our patients. We’ve enhanced our focus on infection control, PPE, and making sure we’re communicating across our teams, especially when it comes to the health of our patients.  

What will your work look like in the wake of the pandemic?

I think in 2021, we are going to experience much of the same that we experienced in 2020. At this point, I feel like we’ve adapted pretty well to operating in this new normal. The numbers are of course spiking throughout El Paso County and the things I’ve already mentioned will stay in place. We also will continue to offer the option of telemedicine when appropriate. As the numbers continue to spike, we will continue to monitor our staff daily and make sure they are safe. I feel like 2021 is just going to be a continuation of 2020, until we have enough vaccinations to achieve herd immunity.