When Karen Leonardini learned she was the 2011 Lotus Award recipient for outstanding support of Mission Hospice & Home Care, she was mystified, recalled nominating committee chair Kate Breaux. “But I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone else,” said Breaux. “Karen has been with Mission Hospice & Home Care in so many different capacities – initially as a volunteer nurse, as a board member and as board chair during a very challenging time – and she’s continued to support us.”
Leonardini received the award during the 32nd anniversary celebration on Jan. 30 at the Peninsula Golf and Country Club. Borel Private Bank also was recognized for its ongoing support.
A graduate of the University of San Francisco, Leonardini had been a nurse for 15 years when she first read about Mission Hospice. “At that time, you died in the hospital and caring for those individuals used to break my heart,” she said. “They were in a foreign place and visitors were restricted. On the other hand, my grandfather died at home and it was peaceful.”
Leonardini started volunteering at Mission Hospice in the mid-1980s when her youngest child – she and husband Tom have five children and 10 grandchildren – started school. “I loved the people I worked with and I loved the people I cared for,” she said. “It was such a different time. I remember one patient, a young divorced woman whose 14-year-old daughter was taking care of her. The mother would lie on the couch and the daughter would leave her food and medicine and water while she went to school. This child was alone, caring for her dying mother.”
She recalled that Dr. Pierre Salmon, Mission Hospice’s first medical director, thought the organization was filling a temporary need. “He felt that eventually, the medical profession would take over hospice care,” she said. “The reason Mission Hospice & Home Care has survived is that it has changed with the times. It has stayed a private hospice but with new programs.”
Over the years, Leonardini’s role also changed. She gave up bedside work in 2000 and became a public speaker and board member, serving as chair in 2001.
“I guess I’m still a spokesperson in an informal way,” she said. “Death is as dramatic a time of your life as birth. You may notice that a lot of hospice nurses were in obstetrics or were midwives before. That’s because birth and death are related. It can be very frightening, but it also can be very calm. With hospice, we can help facilitate dying in peacefulness and comfort.”