For years, Union resident Maryann Mitchell had driven by the road to Sussman House and thought, "I don't want to make that left-hand turn." Around the beginning of December, colon cancer forced her to make that turn, and after six weeks there, she has a message for the community.

"I thought you just came here to die, but that's not the way it is. This is a wonderful facility we have here," she said Jan. 10. "It's not what they do here, it's what they do not do. …There's no drama in this house."

Since coming to Sussman House, Mitchell has developed a strong desire to reassure others who may share her former fear of the hospice house that there is nothing to be afraid of. Sussman, she said, is a quiet, gentle place where the nurses always speak in calm voices and "the house just flows, day and night."

Heidi McCaffery, director of hospice for MaineHealth Care at Home, said Sussman House, which is certified by Medicare, is one part of the hospice program. To be eligible for hospice services, a patient must have a six-month terminal diagnosis, she said, and must choose comfort care instead of curative care.

Hospice patients being cared for at home may come to Sussman for up to five days at a time for respite care, to give family caregivers a break for rest or travel, she said. Patients whose pain or other symptoms cannot be adequately managed at home, or whose care needs cannot be met by family members with the help of home-health workers, may become inpatients at Sussman. Once their pain and symptoms are under control, some return home, McCaffery said. About half of Sussman's inpatients come directly from Pen Bay Medical Center or another hospital, she said. Those who prefer not to stay at the hospice house can receive what is known as "continuous care," receiving eight hours a day of skilled nursing at home.

Hospice care, wherever it is received, is paid for by Medicare, Medicaid or private insurance. And where there is financial hardship, "We have never turned anyone away who needed care, and we never would," McCaffery said.

Pets are welcome to visit at Sussman House, and there is a playroom for visiting children. "We want [patients and families] to feel as comfortable here as they are at home," Betsy Boynton, house manager of Sussman, said.

Hospice offers more than a gentle, respectful way to end one's life: with social workers, nurses, aides and its own chaplain, Maine Healthcare at Home offers a range of support to help families celebrate the life that is coming to a close, as well as grieve its ending. Families are encouraged to cook in the house's kitchen and gather there for meals. In addition, there is always food available prepared by Sussman's cadre of a few dozen volunteers.

McCaffery said families appreciate the peace at Sussman House, and the fact that they can be as they need to be there. She recalled the wife of a patient who sent a note after her spouse died saying that one of the best things for her about being there was being able to help the volunteers make Thanksgiving dinner.

Warren resident Merrilee Brown's husband, Tod, died at Sussman in December 2016, after battling cancer for several months. She said, "After five months of confusion and stress, yet knowing death was on the way, I felt a huge sense of relief when we landed at Sussman, in the recognition that we would be accommodated and looked after with a great deal of professionalism, compassion and love. And we were."

Knowing that "death is a certainty," she said she appreciated the fact that "the journey toward death is respected, valued and honored … and the recognition by the staff that the journey is different for everyone and they respect that diversity of experience."

Both Mitchell and Brown had high praise for the Sussman House staff, citing their professionalism, compassion and flexibility.

Brown said the experience of staying in the house (she shared her husband's suite during his eight-day stay) was "not hospital-like in any way." She added that, "We felt like we were home," with daughters Susanna Morrow and Katrina Nygaard cooking in the house's kitchen and staying in a suite adjoining their father's that happened to be empty at the time.

One staff member who was "pretty important" to the Browns was Henry, the therapy dog. He visited Tod Brown, even coming into his room when requested once in the middle of the night, Merrilee Brown said.

Mitchell attributed the lack of drama in the house to the calm professionalism of the nurses and CNAs on the staff. "The support for families is incredible," she added. "There's so much room here for families to wander." She said her husband visits her at the house, as have their three children.

Having had numerous abdominal surgeries in the course of her life, she said, "I was used to the care you get in a hospital, where you go in and they make you better." She was initially afraid to go on hospice, she said, because it involves choosing maintenance/comfort care instead of seeking a cure. But now, "It's working out OK," she said. "I'm just flying on a wing and a prayer."

McCaffery said tours of Sussman House are always available, and she is happy to talk to interested groups about the house, the range of hospice services and end-of-life issues in general. Contact her at 800-660-4867.