Karen Flynn of Bowdoin sings “No True Good-Bye” at the Androscoggin Hospice House in Auburn last month during the annual Butterfly Release Celebration. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — Once, driving the back roads home after a baby shower in Dixfield, Karen Flynn started counting the number of homes she had been in as a hospice nurse.

Forty four, forty five, forty six.

“I lost count at about 47 houses,” she said. “Then I start thinking about the stories and the people, and that is really my passion. . . You learn how to say hello knowing you’re going to say goodbye and you understand that’s part of the arrangement.”

Karen Flynn Daryn Slover/Sun Journal file photo Buy this Photo

After more than three decades in nursing, Flynn said her own goodbye earlier this summer, retiring as Androscoggin Home Health Care + Hospice’s director of hospice and palliative care. She’d overseen eight managers and 100-plus nurses and staff, and before that, hundreds of patients.

“Just before I left to retire, one of the nurses came in and said, ‘I have a new patient, he’s 101,'” Flynn said. “‘He was wondering if you were still working because 17 years ago you took care of his wife. He called you his angel.’ Those connections are so powerful.”

Flynn grew up in Massachusetts and got a job at 15 in a nursing home as a full-time housekeeper.

Often at the end of her shift, “nobody would show up to do the nursing assistant work, so I would just stay on,” she said. “I knew very quickly that I loved nursing, I loved people. That was really my introduction — nursing before gloves and before real good products, you just learned a lot.”

She worked there all four years of high school, once fired and quickly rehired 24 hours later: “There was a nurse that didn’t like me singing when I vacuumed.”

“Music for me was how I connected with people — it’s how I connect with myself,” Flynn said. “I wasn’t a great musician, but I could certainly play, ‘She’ll Be Coming Round The Mountain,’ and just spend time with the elderly people, the patients there. I have integrated music throughout my entire nursing career, so I think there were a lot of pieces that were already getting into place from those years.”

Flynn was already a psychiatric nurse when she and her husband, Timothy, moved to Maine 36 years ago, buying several hundred acres in Bowdoin and starting a farm.

“He was very interested in organic farming and living really close to the earth,” she said. “We grew up in small town America and Massachusetts was getting a little crowded for him.”

They live in a home built on the same property, further back, and have since sold the farm.

She started at what’s now Androscoggin Home Healthcare + Hospice in 1988, as it was putting together a mental health team.

A few years in, “I became very fascinated with the experience of end-of-life care because I had some of my mental health patients that were starting to grapple with death and dying,” Flynn said.

In the early 1990s, she cared for a caseload of end-stage AIDS patients: “They were young, they were scared and they were dying because we didn’t have treatment,” she said.

Flynn continued field work until October 2004 when Hospice House opened and she began a 16-year stretch in management.

Androscoggin President and CEO Ken Albert this week called her one of the rare people “who are doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing in life.”

“Karen’s gifts as a human being, nurse and leader in America’s hospice movement are genuinely recognizable,” he said. “Serious and end-of-life illness can be an incredibly challenging journey physically and emotionally. Maine citizens have – and will continue to be the beneficiaries of Karen’s lifework. For this I will be eternally grateful.”

Flynn said she approached the work with the right mindset.

“You really take each day as a little lifetime — not bad advice for any of us, to be honest,” she said.

Her longest patient was on-again, off-again for four years. The shortest died the day she met them.

“I remember a patient that was a case, I walked in, the husband said, ‘I want to go do some errands,'” Flynn said. “I immediately noticed this woman wasn’t going to live more than a couple of hours. We got the husband back, we called the priest, and she had a beautiful death, very quick, while the priest was giving sacrament of the sick. You know you have to expect the unexpectable and you just sort of manage it as it unfolds.”

She’s met so many families over the years, that when she’s out and about, “everybody kind of looks familiar to me,” Flynn said.

And she’s not done yet. After taking the summer off, she plans to return to per diem patient care in the fall.

“I feel like I’m a young 65 with a lot to do,” Flynn said.

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