LEWISTON — After 22 years at Androscoggin Home Care & Hospice, 10 of them leading 430 employees and building the state’s first hospice house, Julie Shackley said it’s time to step down and learn to relax.

She’ll spend time on Taylor Pond in Auburn with her husband, David, and dog Teddy, and they’ll travel between chemotherapy treatments. First on her itinerary in the fall: castles in Scotland.

Sitting in her office, talking about the future and the past, Shackley is matter of fact: She thought she’d beaten breast cancer — twice. But last year, she found out she hadn’t.

“We thought it was a recurrence in 2011,” Shackley, 58, said. “And then (in) 2015, I found that it had metastasized, so it never went away, basically, from 2007. 

“After 2011, David and I talked about retiring early — but not this early,” she said. “The average (life expectancy with treatment) is around three years; it’s not great. I’m above average, so I’ll be here a lot longer — but you never know.”

So, it’s time to put her health first, she said. And, because she anticipates she won’t be able to resist, to occasionally wade back into the industry she’s helped grow.

Shackley grew up in Cape Elizabeth and pursued a nursing degree at the University of Southern Maine.

“You ask any of us: We wanted to help people,” she said.

She was a hospital-based nurse for several years in departments such as the Intensive Care Unit.

“I enjoyed that, but I got burnt out — the sadness,” Shackley said.

She found the right fit with in-home nursing, taking those ICU skills to patients’ doors, visiting after knee replacements, new medications or heart issues.

“We got to spend time with patients and their families, really looking holistically at what was going on in their lives and what impacted their health,” Shackley said. “What do they need? When they’re sick, they want to be with loved ones. I think they heal better in their own surroundings.”

She began her career with Androscoggin Home Care & Hospice as a clinical supervisor and moved up the ranks. Ten years ago, after a national search, the board named her the new CEO.

She’s quick to name three highlights. Though she credits her predecessor with the vision for Hospice House, it was built under Shackley.

“It was quite an adventure because nobody in the state had an inpatient facility,” she said.

She had to work with the state to figure how it would be licensed, what codes to meet.

“It’s a beautiful facility, but the staff are just fabulous and really are the gift to individuals over there,” Shackley said.

The house averages 10 to 11 patients a day, people made comfortable and given support during what are typically the last days of their lives.

Shackley also takes a lot of pride in AHCH’s consistent “Best Place to Work in Maine” designation. The company submits an application every other year, and each time, it has met the criteria. The award is based heavily on employees’ responses and satisfaction.

“To me, that means as an employer, we’re doing well by our employees,” she said. “I think the family atmosphere (shows) that we care for each other; I’m a perfect example. During 2007 and 20011, when I went through surgery and chemo and was not in a great place physically, I had all people coming out of the woodwork just giving good thoughts and prayers and cards and any support. It was just amazing. We do that not just for the CEO; we do that for anyone here.”

The last highlight: Getting AHCH involved early in a federal, then state, pilot program that connects patients with care and community services, including Meals on Wheels and The Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope & Healing. 

The agency works with 40 local practices to care for the top 5 percent of patients most at risk of rehospitalization. It saves money and has meant healthier patients.

“We’ve seen a huge decrease for readmissions for our practices only, 60 percent,” Shackley said. “It really is meeting a need. The way home care was being reimbursed before wasn’t able to tap these people. It’s really a great new service our organization is now delivering to support the community.”

Shackley, who has stage 4 breast cancer, let her board know six months ago that she would retire in June.

“It was the right decision,” she said. “Knock on wood, things are still good, tumors are shrinking.”

She’ll miss staff and having a voice at the state level — which is why, if she stays healthy, she’s teased colleagues that she may still pop in.

She and her husband have sold their home and downsized to their Taylor Pond camp with no TV and few distractions except Teddy, wildlife and good books.

“(David) knows how to step back, let go and relax,” Shackley said. “I’ll have to take some lessons from him. When you’re sitting out there looking at the water, listening to the loons, seeing the sunset, it’s like you’re thousands of miles away. Very therapeutic.”

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