Just days after her father died, Debbie Robson, Executive Director of the Hospice Care of the West, watched the montage of his life review in photos to the song, “It’s a Wonderful World,” at his Celebration of Life in April. She felt transported back in time and realized first hand the importance of our life review video program that transforms the end of life experience for patients and grieving families at Hospice Care of the West.
“It was healing for me to see the completion of his life and my mother’s life, our family unit,” Debbie said. “Now when I think about memories of my family I picture the healthy, happy times, that replace the devastation of illness that really makes you lose a sense of yourself, and is really dark at times. What we do in hospice helps to lighten that darkness and life review video rebuilds the family unit in a very powerful way.”
The process of sifting through the photos of her father, Chuck, and subsequently her mother, she learned about facets of his life that he had never shared such as his service as a medic in the Korean War and that he was ballroom dancer as a child. She understood more about his work as an engineer at Boeing. And most of all, how much he loved her mother and their family. The journey through his life review in photos became their last conversation.
The experience has furthered her passion for our mission at Hospice Care of the West to Celebrate Life and Preserve the Legacy of our patients and each other.
A week before Debbie took the helm of Hospice Care of the West in 2010, her mother, Nora passed away. Her mother’s spirit lives on in the many ways that Debbie leads, cheerleads, motivates and supports her team—nearly 100 strong— at Hospice Care of the West. Debbie has cleverly sewn the spiritual into the day-to-day operational works of Hospice Care of the West. When I say spiritual, I mean that she recognizes and celebrates that we are all connected to a purpose greater than ourselves. We each have a story. And that personal story is what makes each member of the team extraordinary.
“My mother was my greatest cheerleader,” Debbie said. “She was not judgmental of me or anybody. She demonstrated kindness, acceptance, always smiled and spread happiness wherever she was.”
One of her favorite memories growing up was watching her mother sew her cheerleading uniforms for Pop Warner Football and dresses that she had dreamed up. Those early lessons of sewing taught Deb that she could follow a pattern of a dress to transform a vision into a lived reality. A dress drawn on paper could become a sparkling new outfit. Likewise, her father taught her how to turn a roadmap into a memorable family vacation to the Grand Canyon and Yosemite. These were some of the best times she spent with her family.
She was born in West Covina, California. Her parents divorced by the time she was two. Her mother remarried Chuck, not long after. The youngest of her siblings Gary and Sheri, Debbie was a mama’s girl. Her dream was to become a Mom like her own Mom when she grew up. Very young, she searched for a deeper connection with God. By six years old, she would ask her grandparents to take her to church on Sundays in Highland Park. She yearned to be in a spiritual community. By the time she reached high school, she joined Campus Life, a Christian youth group. She loved the activities of the Campus Life from inspirational camps and activities that gave her a sense of belonging and fun.
After high school, she and her mother worked together at World Vision, a nonprofit organization that sponsors poverty-stricken children in third world countries. Her fondest memory at World Vision was meeting her mother once a week for Chapel. The whole company would come together for Chapel once a week. Just like Mom, she took up sewing and sewed dresses and even a business suit for her mother to wear to the office and Chapel.
Deb married young and gave birth to two beautiful daughters, Brooke and Michelle. She achieved her dream of becoming a Mom. She was a stay at home mom. Yet, she felt the call to do more. With bold courage, she held the hands of her little girls and marched into the Chaffey College counselor in her mid 20s. The counselor gave her a five-year road map to becoming a nurse. School turned out to be a lifeline for Deb. She followed that map like a pattern of a dress. It became the vision for a new life as her marriage deteriorated. When she graduated from college with a nursing degree, she closed that chapter with a divorce. As a toast to their new life and remembering her family vacations, she and her daughters mapped their first road trip to the Grand Canyon. Deb went on to obtain her Bachelors degree and then her Masters in Business Administration.
She married Mark Robson in the early 1990s. Around that time, she became a home health care nurse and witnessed the profound changes the hospice team could make in the lives of her patients facing the end of life, many battled AIDS at that time. She recognized these patients needed more than medical care. They needed a team that included the psychosocial and spiritual handholding from the hospice social workers and spiritual care coordinators. She found herself referring countless patients to hospice.
She joined the hospice movement as it began to crest like a wave across America. As a hospice nurse, she loved the interplay with the interdisciplinary team that cared for the whole patient…body, mind and spirit. Debbie discovered her calling when she moved into management.
“You know you’ve found your passion when it doesn’t feel like work,” she said. Hospice is extremely gratifying because you can’t change the situation but you can make it the best possible experience for them. When people feel supported, they feel enriched.”
With Debbie at the helm, Hospice Care of the West has risen and continues to rise as an award-winning hospice leading the field with transformative patient care that shines as a beacon for other hospices. Hospice Care of the West has become widely recognized in the community and continues to grow with a census growing more than 40 percent since she started. Recently, hospice leaders, trusting her to be the voice for hospices across Southern California, voted Debbie to serve on the Board of Directors for California Hospice and Palliative Care Association.
She is a visionary in embracing the launch of the Celebration2Life blog now OurLifeCelebrations.com that has become a valuable link to the community while also establishing a culture within the hospice. She imagined Celebration to be like Chapel at World Vision. In a way, it is like a spiritual retreat, an hour dedicated to nurturing the spirits of the members of her team. It’s not an easy feat with a team nearly a hundred strong, but she has recognized that everyone is more engaged. In the same spirit of life review video, team members share their life stories and wisdom on a video played at the Celebration. A living eulogy of a team member is read aloud followed by an open microphone for team members to celebrate each other.
“Celebration is a manifestation of my personal mission to raise the standard of care in hospice and run an organization that cares for and inspires its employees in a way that strengthens them emotionally and spiritually to give greater care to our patients and their families in the community.”