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A Calling for Caring

Bill Finn Bill Finn, ’83, began interning with Hospice when it had just 15 patients a day from a borrowed office in a former paint factory in Buffalo. Today, the innovative organization serves more than 750 patients a day from five locations across Western New York.


Finn met Rachel Martinez when both were working at the Campus Health Center. “She’s the most amazing person I know,” he says of his wife of 27 years.

The average person will have eight different jobs throughout his career. Bill Finn, ’83, has had just one – and it began nearly 30 years ago at SUNY Fredonia, in an industry few understood.

We sat down with him to learn how he went from the campus’ first student intern at Hospice Buffalo to the President and CEO of the same organization – now known as the Center for Hospice and Palliative Care, a $48 million healthcare system.

It’s not often that a student knows what he wants to do for the rest of his life before he even walks through his dorm room door. It’s even less often that a student chooses a profession where most of his customers know their time on Earth is nearing its end.  

Students like Bill Finn are rare, indeed.

William E. Finn came to SUNY Fredonia in the fall of 1979, not even fully knowing where it was. “I had a friend who went there and just loved it, but I don’t think I really knew it was 430 miles away from my house at first,” Mr. Finn says with a smile.

What the Long Island native did know was that he wanted a “mid-sized” school, and he wanted to get away from home, at least for a while. Fredonia fit those criteria. Plus, it had a good academic reputation and would allow him to enter the healthcare administration industry – even though he was picking a niche that few, if any, Fredonia students had ever pursued. He wanted to enter the field of hospice, an industry designed to help people and their families deal with the many issues which arise when faced with a serious or terminal illness.

That’s a pretty heavy topic for someone in his late teens to wrap his head around, but Finn not only knew what the business entailed – he had first-hand experience with it. 

“I watched and helped care for my grandmother as she was sick and dying,” Finn recalls. “And I saw how the healthcare system treated her. The system didn’t know how to talk to her, how to support her needs, how to allow her to be in charge of her own care. She just sort of fell in between the cracks.”

Right then and there, he knew what he was going to do with his life. In high school he began working in a hospital emergency department, operating room, pharmacy – anything he could do to get experience in medical-related fields. He also reached out to a CEO of Huntington Hospital on Long Island, Tom Hoeft, who became a valuable mentor to him.  

However, Finn’s life really took shape at Fredonia, where he was a double major in Psychology and Business Administration.

“I went into Dr. Jere Wysong’s office as a junior and said, ‘I’d like to do an internship,’” Finn recalls. “He said to me, ‘Everything is already full.’ But then I said, ‘I want to do an internship at Hospice Buffalo.’ And he jumped right out of his chair [with excitement].”

A few days later Bill was connected with a woman who would forever change his life: Charlotte Shedd.

A nurse and accomplished pianist who held a master’s degree in nursing from Yale University, Shedd was the co-founder and executive director of Hospice Buffalo, which literally began by operating out of her family’s Lafayette Avenue home in Buffalo in 1974. A year later, with 15 patients a day, it opened its first office – a single desk in some borrowed space within an old Buffalo paint factory.

Shedd hired Finn as an intern and was so impressed by his work ethic and dedication that she hired him as her personal assistant immediately after he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1983.

SUNY Fredonia also led Finn to the other woman who would have an equally pivotal impact on his life: Rachel Martinez. Bill and Rachel met while working as counselors in LoGrasso Health Center. Rachel, from Staten Island, recalls being impressed by Bill – even though they didn’t go on their first date until more than a year after they met – because he was so comfortable talking with their fellow students and always had a genuine compassion about him.

“It’s funny that I had to travel to the other side of the state to meet someone who lived just a few miles away,” Bill marvels about Rachel. “But that’s what happened. She’s the most amazing person I know.”

They stayed together even though Rachel graduated a year ahead of Bill in 1982 with a degree in Elementary Education and returned to downstate New York to start her career. However, when Bill was offered the job by Shedd back in Buffalo, Rachel decided to come back to Western New York. The couple married in late 1983 and Rachel is now an elementary school teacher in the Amherst School District.

“Charlotte saw something in Bill that I don’t think he saw in himself,” says Rachel. “She saw that he was a compassionate man, an intelligent man, and that he had a vision. She allowed him to start looking at this from a younger person’s point of view.”

Shedd apparently had an eye for talent. Within seven years Finn was named Chief Operating Officer, having opened the first hospice inpatient facility in New York State and served as President of the Hospice and Palliative Care Association of New York State along the way. He added the title of Executive Vice President in 1992 and served in this capacity under Shedd’s successor, Dr. J. Donald Schumacher, who served as Executive Director until 2002. During that span, the organization purchased and developed its present Cheektowaga, N.Y., campus, formed strategic affiliations with numerous area hospitals and the University at Buffalo’s School of Medicine, and formally changed its name to the Center for Hospice and Palliative Care (CHPC), to reflect the organization’s added focus on serving patients with serious and debilitating illnesses which aren’t necessarily terminal.

Concomitantly, Finn received an M.B.A. from University at Buffalo. Following Dr. Schumacher’s appointment as CEO for the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization in 2002, Finn was named President and CEO of CHPC, which today is the parent organization of Hospice Buffalo, Home Care Buffalo, Life Transitions Center, Caring Hearts Home Care and the Hospice Foundation of WNY. It provides services that enhance the comfort and quality of life for those experiencing the impact of serious illness and loss.

In addition to managing the 25-acre Mitchell campus in Cheektowaga, Finn has created the nation’s first minority partnership hospice residence, opened a 22-bed acute inpatient unit, started a nationally-regarded pediatric program, a perinatal program, and developed the Palliative Care Institute, a corporation for end-of-life education, research and practice. He has also implemented programs devoted to in-home care and support to patients with chronic progressive disease. In short, he provides the strategic direction and vision to a $48 million healthcare system with 600 employees and 1,400 volunteers across five sites.

If you’re reading this and thinking, “I had no idea Hospice did all of that,” you’re not alone.

“Most people hear ‘Hospice’ and they think of persons actively dying of cancer,” Bill says. “But the truth is, less than half of our patients have cancer. Most Americans state a preference to be at home for end of life, but only one-third of us will actually die at home. Hospice allows for patient-directed, customized care during the most impactful time in our lives.”

The benefits of hospice care can be measured in so many ways, but the biggest can be seen in the ultimate bottom line.

“A patient using hospice lives, on average, 30 days longer,” Finn attests.

Recently, Finn has led the charge to broaden his connection to his  alma mater, especially in the form of internships and field experiences for today’s students. The CHPC has had a program in place with SUNY Fredonia’s Music Therapy majors for several semesters, but opportunities exist for collaborative endeavors with departments across the campus. These include health-related fields such as biology and chemistry, but students studying psychology, sociology, and other social sciences are also in demand. The CHPC also has all of the operational needs that any healthcare provider has, from accounting and managerial functions to marketing and information technology challenges. And because hospice and palliative care is the fastest-growing, non-acute segment of the healthcare industry, Fredonia students will now have a tremendous opportunity to gain unprecedented experience.

“There is just so much they do, from medical-related fields to back-office functions,” said Tracy Collingwood, director of Fredonia’s Career Development Office. “It’s a fantastic opportunity for us to place quality students in an environment where they will not only learn a great deal, but also be able to make a meaningful impact on the organization they serve.”

“The thing I’m most proud of is that we have been profoundly innovative in creating patient-centered care models,” Finn says of his colleagues and their organization. “We’ve established the Palliative Care Institute. We added the St. John the Baptist House in Buffalo’s lower income inner city – the first of its kind in the U.S. Our pediatric care unit is ranked among the top five in the nation. We’ve created more access [and] more care for people facing serious illnesses, and that makes a huge difference to them and their loved ones.”

Rachel is equally proud of Bill, marveling at how he takes the time to hand write a birthday card to every single employee every year, and go door-to-door at work, passing out ice cream novelties on hot summer days. Yet, his professional accomplishments will always take a back seat in her mind to the work he’s done at home.

“If there is one thing that I am most proud of for Bill and I, it is our two sons, Andrew and Brendan,” says Rachel. “Raising children is such a challenge. The trick is to go from managing your kids when they’re young to being a consultant with them when they’re older. We’ve been very lucky with both of them.”

While growing up, both boys vowed they’d never go to their parents’ alma mater, although only one of them kept that promise.  “Andrew, our oldest, wound up falling in love with Fredonia after he visited. I think he just saw what his mom and I did,” says Bill.

“He had a wonderful time, earned a degree in History in 2009, and is working at Yellowstone National Park as an assistant manager of a lodge.”

Brendan hasn’t been cut out of their will, however, even though he chose to attend New York University (NYU) – and study music and sound production, no less… two of Fredonia’s biggest specialties!   “NYU was always my dream school,” says Rachel, “It’s wonderful watching him have this great opportunity.” Brendan is scheduled to graduate in 2011.

“Sometimes we ask ourselves, ‘How did we get here?’” Rachel admits. “I cannot emphasize how much we have loved our life here in Western New York. Really, it all goes back to Charlotte. Bill grew very close with her. She not only gave Hospice its start, she gave us ours as well.”

In fact, both credit Shedd and the organization she created are the primary reasons why the Finns still call Western New York home.  “This wasn’t what we originally planned to do,” says Rachel. “We both planned to be here for about 5 to 7 years and then move back near our family.”

However, not only did Bill really enjoy what he was doing, there was still a lot of work that needed to be done. Even though he’s had chances to go elsewhere, this is the only place he’s ever really wanted to be. “He really has a passion for it. I kind of see it as a mission and a calling for him,” says Rachel. “When he was younger and even today, he would get approached by other companies, but he’s always been so dedicated to Buffalo.”

Lucky for Buffalo. The organization that once served just 15 patients a day has evolved into one that today serves 750 daily – more than 40 times the level when Finn began.

For Bill, the new SUNY Fredonia initiative has in many ways brought his life full circle. He’s not just giving back to the alma mater that helped him get his start. He’s ensuring that the industry that has given him so much is attracting the brightest and most qualified students going forward…just as Charlotte did for him nearly 30 years ago. 

Having retired in 1989, Shedd passed away in 2007 of end stage Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 84--fittingly at Hospice Buffalo, which she brought to life in 1974. Also fittingly, Bill was selected to deliver the eulogy at her funeral.

Some would say you couldn’t write a better script than that. Then again, Finn and his team at CHPC wrote the book on happy endings.


posted @ Thursday, August 19, 2010 1:14 PM by Christine Davis Mantai

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