When Jaye Zirjacks first started working in Home Health and Hospice nearly 20 years ago, it took weeks to process an order for a patient to receive services.
Her job was to write up a patient’s diagnosis, justifying home health care services after which a physician would sign off on the order.
Technology has helped streamline the process.
“Now, if we don’t have the order back in 14 days, we’re calling to find out why,” Zirjacks explained. “Before, we’d be lucky if we got it out in 14 days. It’s progress.”
As with most things in the field of healthcare, change is a constant.
Sometimes it seems as if regulations change on a daily basis, said Susan Hawk, a social worker in the department.
“Like with anything, there are always changes. But it seems like in the medical field, it hits instantly. You get something put into place and it changes,” Hawk said.
The local department is witnessing change again.
Beginning today, the department long associated with Allen County Regional Hospital will cease operations.
Saint Luke’s Hospital System, which is set to lease the hospital this summer, has expanded its home health and hospice services into Allen County. All of the ACRH Home Health and Hospice staff have accepted positions with Saint Luke’s.
“It’s going to be great for the community, for the hospital and for home health and hospice care,” said Hawk.
Hawk said local patients shouldn’t see much difference. For legal reasons, their cases were discharged and they were given the option to sign with Saint Luke’s or other area providers.
The biggest difference will be the staff’s ability to tap into Saint Luke’s vast resources, Hawk said, including additional staff, if needed.
“They specialize in home health and hospice so we’re going to have those resources and support from people who know the changes that are constantly coming down the road,” Hawk said.
Staff also will be working from home, rather than from the office at 826 E. Madison Ave. Zirjacks will continue with her role in processing orders, but on a part-time basis at her request. She’s still at least a couple of years away from retirement, and wasn’t ready to sit home “and do nothing.”
At first, she worried she wouldn’t enjoy working from home. She was afraid she’d miss the socialization with staff at the office. But as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced her to work from home the past couple of weeks, she’s already learned to adapt.
“I really like it,” she said. “It’s been a really good test run and I feel a lot better about making this choice.”
ALLEN COUNTY Regional Hospital opened its home health department around 1985 and later added hospice care.
Zirjacks first started working for the hospital in the patient accounts department in 1991, and transferred to home health and hospice about 10 years later to perform secretarial duties. At the time, the office was located in a trailer across the street before it moved into the clinic building at East Madison Avenue.
“I liked home health and hospice a whole lot better. People don’t yell at you about their bill,” she said. “It was a good change for me.”
Cindy Strickler, who worked on coding and billing for the department, served as a sort of mentor for Zirjacks.
“She taught me how to deal with patients. I learned a lot from her,” Zirjacks said.
“Being a secretary, I kind of had to read people over the phone. Not everyone knows how to say what’s going on with them.”
She recalled a couple of incidents where a caller was vague about details, but Zirjacks could sense something was wrong. She sometimes had to make a decision to immediately send a nurse to check on a patient.
“One time, Cindy and I called an ambulance to go to someone’s house. We made that decision together. It was teamwork,” she said.
Though the staff has changed over the years, it stayed relatively stable for most of Zirjack’s tenure. That all changed starting a few years ago, when longtime nurses and staff — including Strickler — retired.
“They were the best of the best,” Zirjacks said. “A home health and hospice nurse has to have a different skill set, and it’s a little harder to find those people in a rural area.”
They were followed by a series of contract labor, nurses and directors who would help out for a brief time before moving on to another community.
In that past couple of years the department has built a new team of dedicated local nurses committed to helping those in their community. Those are the staff members who will continue with Saint Luke’s.
Hawk joined the home health and hospice department in 2007, returning to social work after taking a year off following a 12-year career at Southeast Kansas Mental Health.
Like Zirjacks, Hawk found herself well-suited to home health and hospice.
“I felt like I could really offer families assistance at a time of grief and help the patients with the journey they are going through,” Hawk said. “We’re a small enough community that generally, someone on staff knows the family or knows somebody who does. We’ve always prided ourselves in taking care of our own.
“Our goals are going to remain the same. We’re going to be here to take care of our friends, family and neighbors. We’re just going to be operating under a different name.”