Jennifer Merecki
Jennifer Merecki, the executive director at Valley Health Care Center, talks about its new palliative-care facility.

A Billings nursing home is opening a palliative-care unit that will care for terminally ill patients in the last stages of life.

Sapphire Suites at Valley Health Care Center is a safe, comfortable place for people at the end of life who do not qualify for hospitalization and cannot be cared for at home, said executive director Jennifer Merecki.

“What you would find in a hotel are the services we provide,” Merecki said. “We want it to feel as comfortable and homelike and special as possible.”

A 24-hour nursing team will oversee 10 private rooms where family members can stay overnight with patients. The unit has two lounges, a kitchenette and dining area, and a private courtyard.

The staff will manage patients’ pain with medication as well as with alternative therapies such as massage, reflexology, aromatherapy, music therapy and pet therapy.

“It fills a void out in the community,” said Bill Holloway, Valley’s director of nursing. “We’re seeing more and more need for specialty palliative care for the elderly.”

Billings has one other inpatient facility for end-of-life care, but it cannot care for the sickest of patients. Horizon Home is a seven-bed hospice operated in the Heights by RiverStone Health.

RiverStone is raising money to build a 12-bed hospice home on the campus of St. Johns Lutheran Ministries that would be able to take people who need intensive care.

Sapphire Suites is set to open on Monday, and it already has a waiting list, Merecki said.

It will accept patients who have Medicare, Medicaid or private insurance.

“This is just the top of the peak,” said Debbie Degnan, a registered nurse who will work on the unit. “Years ago, people stayed home to die. But that was when wives didn’t work, and they took care of the dying.”

Valley Health Care Center is a for-profit facility managed by the Minneapolis-based Goodman Group.

Contact Diane Cochran at dcochran@billingsgazette.com or 657-1287.


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Sapphire Suites will hold an open house today from 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

The palliative-care unit of Valley Health Care Center is located at 1807 24th St. W.