#alive hospice nashville
Deaths of 2 close friends inspire Alive Hospice CEO every day
Anna-Gene O’Neal holds hands with Jim Regan, a patient at Alive Hospice. O’Neal was offered the job as CEO of Alive Hospice in 2012, on the 10-year anniversary of her close friend’s death. (Photo: John Partipilo / The Tennessean) Buy Photo
Their husbands were longtime best friends, and the ladies, both nurses, grew very close. In the 1990s, Anna-Gene O’Neal worked in Vanderbilt’s emergency room, her friend Susan Batt in labor and delivery.
One of their favorite hobbies was trying to turn their husbands’ stomachs with work stories.
Then again, they tried to gross out each other, too. Just part of being nurse buddies.
“We talked, we laughed, we could gross each other out,” O’Neal said, smiling. “There’s not a lot either one of us hasn’t seen.”
Batt also cared deeply about her patients, which inspired her friend.
“She was honest, loving, caring, fun, strong, and she had a passion to make delivering a baby not just a miracle but an incredibly beautiful experience,” O’Neal said.
The diagnosis shocked them both. Batt’s family had no history of cancer.
The four-year losing battle with breast cancer gave O’Neal her first up-close look at hospice care. A few years later, O’Neal lost another close friend, Wendy Kanter, to metastatic breast cancer.
Those two experiences profoundly moved O’Neal, introducing her intimately to dying and death — and showing her that among pain and loss, there is beauty.
Five years after those losses, O’Neal became president and CEO of Alive Hospice in Nashville, which provides care each day for about 400 terminally ill patients and support for their families.
Her friends Susan and Wendy influence her leadership daily.
“Every decision I’m a part of, I’ve got the two of them that sit here guiding my conscience,” O’Neal said.
A friend’s last breath
O’Neal wasn’t part of Batt’s daily care, but Batt shared her wishes about dying with her close friend.
“She shared her deepest inner feelings about what she wanted and didn’t want and what quality of life meant to her,” O’Neal said.
Batt also shared her deepest fear, that her youngest daughter, Janie, wouldn’t remember her mom. In fact, Janie was 6 when her mom died and the girl never got a chance to know her mom when her mom wasn’t sick.
Susan Batt holds Anna-Gene O’Neal’s son, Bates, in 1996. Batt worked in labor and delivery at Vanderbilt, while O’Neal worked in the emergency room. (Photo: Submitted)
O’Neal remembers feeling moved by her friend’s vulnerability and gut-wrenching honesty.
She kept it together in front of Batt.
“You question a lot — how does this incredible person who gives so much of herself to humanity, how can this happen? How is this right? Why?” she said. “Every day was hard.”
O’Neal found herself crying at home in her bedroom.
The two friends never talked in depth about how much they loved each other. But O’Neal decided she had to share her feelings in a letter, which took a long time to write.
“I wanted to get it perfect.”
O’Neal delivered the letter a month before her friend died — and the two never talked about it. But O’Neal saw it open on Batt’s dresser, where it stayed until the end.
The day Batt died, Feb. 11, 2002, the O’Neals got a call from her husband, saying she probably would pass soon.
O’Neal was holding her friend’s hand and rubbing her arm when Batt took her last breath. The feelings came in waves.
“It was everything from relief she’s no longer suffering to pain that a beautiful life was gone too quickly.”
A member of the Jewish Congregation Micah, O’Neal called it a spiritual time, too.
“It’s ours to have faith that good will come out and hopefully one day, we’ll have understanding.”
That wasn’t easy.
“It was awful,” O’Neal said. “And then it happened again with Wendy.”
Susan Batt (right) with Anna-Gene O’Neal awaiting delivery of O’Neal’s son, Bates, in 1996. (Photo: Submitted)
Wendy Kanter was a massage therapist who treated Susan Batt while she was dying.
But Kanter, married to Congregation Micah’s founding rabbi, Ken Kanter, had had her own struggles with cancer, for more than 20 years.
Anna-Gene and Scott O’Neal were founding members of the temple in 1993, so they became good friends with the Kanters.
Wendy Kanter, a confident free spirit, often hosted girls’ nights of aromatherapy, mani-pedis and wine at her house. Her close friends rejoiced when her cancer went into remission around 2000.
But the cancer came back about five years later, about the time the Kanters moved to Cincinnati.
“All the statistics told Wendy she wasn’t going to make it, but she wasn’t willing to accept that. She fought every day and lived through horrific pain every day, convinced she wouldn’t be that statistic,” O’Neal said.
“I felt the exact same way I felt with Susan, a life well lived, a life lived greatly cut too short. The selfish piece, I just lost Susan, I can’t lose Wendy, too.”
Wendy Kanter with Anna-Gene O’Neal’s daughter, Ayla O’Neal, in 1994 (Photo: Submitted)
O’Neal got the call that Wendy Kanter was about to die, and O’Neal jumped into her car and drove the five hours to Cincinnati. She met the Kanters just as a noncommunicative Wendy was being transferred from the hospital to a hospice facility — Wendy Kanter had said earlier she didn’t want to die in a hospital.
Another friend stayed in the room while O’Neal took the rabbi to dinner.
When they got back that day, June 23, 2007, Wendy Kanter had died.
“It didn’t surprise me that she waited for Ken to have someone to be with before she passed,” O’Neal said.
“I didn’t want to leave because I wanted to be there the same way I was with Susan, for her last breath. But I had to take me out of the equation.”
Wendy Kanter, left, and Anna-Gene O’Neal ride in a pedicab in Halifax, Nova Scotia. (Photo: Submitted)
Five years later, O’Neal was asked to be on the board of Alive Hospice, and within days, she found out there was an opening for CEO.
On the 10th anniversary of her friend Susan Batt’s death, O’Neal got the offer.
“I miss them every single day,” she said through tears.
“In hospice, they were impacted at the end of life, so vulnerable, fragile, awful and beautiful at the same time. They inspire me to help others on the same journey.”
Those who work in hospice care often are asked why they would choose to work with the dying.
An Alive Hospice chaplain, Linda Bray, has that answer.
“When you ask her, she says it’s a privilege to be with someone when they’re born. And it’s just as much of a privilege to be with someone when they’re dying,” O’Neal said.
“With a baby, it’s birth of life. When we see death, it’s the birth of a soul. That’s an incredible gift to be able to help navigate and share.”
Anna-Gene O’Neal is CEO and president of Alive Hospice in Nashville, which provides care for 400 terminally ill patients and support for their families. (Photo: John Partipilo / The Tennessean)
Alive Hospice helps — including the indigent
What: Alive Hospice is a nonprofit agency that provides care for terminally ill patients in Middle Tennessee and support for their families. More than 3,400 patients and families were served in 2014, regardless of their ability to pay.
The agency also provides grief support and education on the end of life.
Where: Most hospice care is provided in patients’ homes. The agency also operates two hospice facilities, Alive Hospice Residence Nashville and Alive Hospice at TriStar Skyline Madison Campus.
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