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Criss Learned to Go the Extra Mile at Hospice
Criss Fallowfield will spend her time nurturing flowers this summer after stepping down from the Hospice and Palliative Center of the Wood River Valley.
Friday, May 10, 2024


Criss Fallowfield developed her passion for caring for the dying the hard way.

By the time she was 30, she had seen six close friends in her community of 10 families in Rhode Island die—in a boating accident, a car accident, a fire, suicide…

“What drove me to Hospice was losing my boyfriend Lee Pesky, who died of a glioblastoma brain tumor. I ended up at Hospice and Palliative Care of the Wood River Valley, and then-director Carolyn Nystrom asked me: On a scale of one to 10, how much do you want this job? I said 100. It was a calling for me.”

Hospice director Alli Collins and Criss Fallowfield spoke about Hospice at a Wood River Women’s Foundation gathering last fall.

Fallowfield served as administrator of Hospice and Palliative Care of the Wood River Valley, helping Nystrom build it to one of only two non-profit organizations in the United States that does not receive federal, state or insurance funding.

She stepped down this past month after 22 years with the organization.

“Criss organized volunteers, handled phone calls, did the bookkeeping, worked on fund-raising, kept track of donors and donations, greeted the visitors to the office, and was basically the Hospice’s ‘little engine’ for over two decades,” said Hospice Board Chair Robert Elgee. “She will be sorely missed.”

Fallowfield studied graphic design at Northeastern University in Boston but decided upon graduation that she really wanted to pursue nursing. She started nurses’ training but gave it up when she moved to Sun Valley. But, she said, she felt as if she got a Ph.D. working alongside Nystrom.

“She told me: We go the extra mile,” Fallowfield recounted.

And that they did. They made what Nystrom called “lifesaving soup: for patients. They caroled at patients’ homes and took patients to symphony concerts

When one man insisted he needed his wood chopped, they organized his fantasy football league to chop the wood. He died right after they stacked the wood next to his stove.

“It was like he was getting a big weight off his shoulders and then he had the peace of mind to go,” recounted Fallowfield. “You never know what’s holding a person back.”

When a new patient resisted her efforts to help him, Fallowfield finally gained his trust by asking him about a picture hanging on his wall of him singing in a choir. When she helped him in the shower, she belted out a song and, thereafter, they spent every shower session singing all the songs they could think of.

Since Hospice is not dependent on government or insurance funding, they were able to provide unique personal services to patients and families for longer periods of time than they might otherwise. And they were able to serve patients who weren’t dying but needed temporary care.

“Carolyn was the face of Hospice. I was the engine working behind the scenes,” said Fallowfield. “We were supported by donations from the community that allowed us to do everything we do free of charge. Carolyn wouldn’t even let us buy pens because she said we didn’t have money for things like that. Instead, she’d bring back a bunch from conferences. Now, of course, Hospice has an endowment”

Many people think that Hospice provides 24/7 nursing care, Fallowfield said. But no hospice works that way. Hospice nurses spend as much time as they can with patients, but they have others on their list that they must care for. The Hospice offers a $3,000 fund to families to help with caregiving, but that goes fast, she said.

“People here are independent, self-reliant people, and they don’t want caregivers or they know they can’t afford it so they try to tough it out. But there comes a time for many when they need help with pain management and other things,” she said.

Those who work around death get a window onto a variety of special moments that occur with the dying, Fallowfield said. One woman, for instance, began reaching for the sky as if trying to pull someone close to her, all the time saying the name of her brother who had died young. That’s not uncommon; many also see dead pets that have passed.

“Some say it’s the medication, but I believe they’re going inward,” she said.

Many wait to die if told a child is coming, then die as soon as they’ve seen that child, both having had the chance to express terms of endearment. Others wait, then go just before the child gets there because they don’t want the child to see them as they die.

Some begin breathing as if they have apnea, sounding a heavy death rattle.  Many rally with a little bound of energy, getting up and eating after not eating in days, just before they die.

“Some may blurt out a few words, like ‘I love you,’ after not talking in a month. It’s just one or two words, but I can’t tell you how special that is for a husband or wife. Saying ‘Thank you for being a great Mom’ is a pretty powerful thing.”

While Fallowfield no longer works at Hospice, she won’t stop nurturing. A gardener whose garden has appeared on the annual Garden Tour, she plans to tend flowers this summer at Buttercup Farm in Hailey.

“It’ll be like I’m still nurturing and caring for something, only I’ll be caring for something that’s coming into life. Having my hands in the dirt, smelling the earth, will be good for me.”

Fallowfield and her husband Bob Fallowfield also want to assist with restaurateur Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen, a not-for-profit organization founded in 2010 following the Haiti earthquake to provide food for peoples whose lives have been uprooted by hurricanes, war and other disasters.

“I really believe in what they’re doing,” said Fallowfield. “I love it any time I can help people.”

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