WilmingtonBiz Magazine

Gwen Whitley Helps Fill The Area’s Need For Hospice Services

By Emily Gorman Fancy, posted Jun 20, 2024
Gwen Whitley (Photo by Aris Harding)
A good friend’s end-of-life experience at Lower Cape Fear LifeCare back in 2006 introduced Gwen Whitley to the nonprofit hospice and palliative care organization, and the now president and CEO has never looked back.

For seven years, Whitley has led the organization that serves 1,200 patients daily across a nine-county service area.

Whitley’s friend, who was only 36 at the time and had advanced cancer, received inpatient treatment at Lower Cape Fear LifeCare’s (LCFL) care center in Wilmington. As a veteran nurse, Whitley had experienced countless deaths in “sterile hospital” settings, but this hospice death was entirely different. Her friend had requested that she feel the warmth of the sun on her face in her final moments, so her bed was pushed out onto the patio of her hospice suite. She took her last breath outside surrounded by family, friends and her hospice team.

The experience had a profound impact on Whitley.

“To see that there was a place other than a sterile hospital where patients could come to, it was a peaceful, touching experience,” she said. “And I thought to myself, I have to be a part of this. It was so powerful and phenomenal.”

At the time, Whitley was a regional vice president for a home health agency. A native of Caswell County, Whitley built a highly successful nursing career prior to becoming an administrator. From her first introduction to LCFL in 2006, it took two years before a job opportunity opened up. She started as a clinical director, a position that was technically a demotion, but Whitley jumped at the chance to be involved with the organization. She has since advanced through the ranks, including stints as the vice president of clinical services and then chief operating officer before her current position as CEO.

Whitley sees her role to be first and foremost about upholding the organization’s mission, which she describes as “identifying and making sure that we are serving anyone who needs hospice, palliative care and memory partners care. The mission is to reach all of those vulnerable people in the community who need end-of-life care and care for a serious illness.”

As CEO, Whitley is the face of community engagement and outreach. She actively collaborates with health care agencies within the broad region that LCFL serves, educating about services and opportunities to expand their reach. She also forms new partnerships with hospitals who need support in their hospice and palliative care services, such as LCFL’s recent expansion to serve UNC Health Southeastern hospital in Robeson County.

LCFL serves an expansive nine-county area of Eastern North Carolina, which recently expanded to include Horry County, South Carolina. Whitley successfully mitigates this challenge of serving a broad area as one unified organization by meeting quarterly with staff in every location to share information about what is going on with the agency and recognize service milestones. “It’s important to me to make all offices feel like we are operating as one,” she explained.

On the palliative care side, the LCFL team provides specialized medical care for patients with complex medical diagnoses. Palliative care focuses on coordinating medical care, managing pain and symptoms and alleviating stress, all with the purpose of providing a better quality of life for patients fighting serious illnesses.

“With palliative care, we focus on the patient receiving the right care at the right place at the right time,” Whitley said.

Part of Whitley’s job is to educate hospitals about how palliative care is not only good for patients, but it is good for a hospital’s bottom line.

“Palliative care can save hospitals money,” Whitley said. “Patients will be discharged sooner with a good plan of care.”

Ninety-five percent of palliative care patients are treated at home by nurse practitioners who collaborate closely with the patient’s primary care physician, Whitley said. LCFL currently operates palliative care clinics within several major local medical facilities, including the Novant Health Zimmer Cancer Institute, Cape Fear Heart Associates, Wilmington Health and Novant Radiation Oncology.

On Sept. 1, LCFL is slated to open the first freestanding clinic for palliative care in North Carolina.
LCFLC sought to establish the new outpatient palliative care clinic, which will be located on Shipyard Boulevard, because they recognized a need in the area. For patients who are well enough to travel to an outpatient clinic, they can be seen more quickly and more efficiently by the outpatient clinic. A physician and a nurse practitioner will alternate care in the clinic five days per week with the ability to see up to 30 patients per day.

Sometimes with home palliative care, patients have to wait two to three weeks before a provider is able to travel to their location. The outpatient clinic enables LCFL staff “to see patients more quickly and get them on a plan to work toward their goals,” Whitley explained.

Another service of LCFL is Memory Partners, which provides care, resources and support for dementia patients and their loved ones. Memory Partners educates caregivers on the different phases of dementia as well as how to take care of and interact with their patients. A team of RNs, social workers and trained volunteers provide support in several areas, including safety assessment, advanced care planning, art therapy and counseling support. Through a $1 million federal grant, Memory Partners is now able to expand services by offering much-needed vouchers for respite care.

As a long-term goal, LCFL would like to build a freestanding Memory Partners building in New Hanover County to serve as a hub of education and support for dementia patients and their caregivers. Whitley hopes to achieve this goal within three to five years.

Looking ahead, LCFL plans to continue seeking opportunities to serve the greatest needs in this area. From her first interaction with hospice care until today, Whitley remains inspired by the organization’s mission and goals.

“What a privilege it is that these families allow us in their homes when they are so vulnerable,” Whitley said. “Just knowing that what we are doing is making an impact in the community. I am very proud to lead this organization.”

Gwen Whitley was part of last year’s WilmingtonBiz 100 as an Influencer. This year’s group will be announced in late September and highlighted in the December issue of WilmingtonBiz Magazine.
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