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Lessons from Emmy

Lessons From Emmy

Emmy Louise Philhour was VITAS’ first patient—a funny, fascinating, bright and determined woman who taught us much about hospice care. The daughter of an industrial manufacturer in Pittsburgh, Emmy was married for more than 30 years to Charles W. “Phil” Philhour, longtime professor of drama at the University of Miami.

Emmy and Phil had two sons, Paul and David. But over the years they accumulated an extended family of friends, students, colleagues and others who admired this extraordinary couple and the ideals that they exemplified throughout their lives.

“They gathered people into their lives,” recalls Carol Reiter, a drama student of Phil’s at UM. “Emmy and Phil came to my rescue after my first husband left me. I was eight months pregnant at the time. I didn’t know what to do or where to go, and Emmy opened her home to me."

Carol said to her, "How can I ever repay you?" Emmy said, "You can’t, but you have to pass it on to someone else when the opportunity knocks." This was Carol’s biggest lesson learned from Emmy Philhour.

When Emmy was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Phil became her primary caregiver. But as an avid reader and independent thinker, Emmy was intrigued by a new concept called hospice that offered her the chance to approach death with dignity in her own home.

Paul Philhour says his mother “wasn’t really interested in will-o’-the-wisp-type cures. She was dying and nobody was going to change that.” Both she and Phil saw hospice as an answer they hadn’t previously conceived. It came along at just the right time.

“My mother always did things the way she wanted to,” Paul continues. “When she signed on with hospice, it was important to her; she was doing something new; she was ‘cutting edge’ again. She was able to make a last adventure out of dying.”

Phil was more wary at first. It was only once he got to know the hospice people that he felt they were helping to take some of that responsibility off his shoulders. “That was enormously helpful. Hospice provided my father with the security that there was somebody behind him,” says Paul.

Paul and David Philhour helped care for both their parents at the ends of their lives and saw firsthand the empowerment that hospice brings. “I think hospice became Emmy’s final cause—the right to die in a dignified manner,” says David. 

Carol Reiter agrees: “I’m not at all surprised that she volunteered to be hospice’s first patient. She wanted her death to have meaning for everyone who came after her.”

That pioneering spirit continues to be celebrated at VITAS, where the Emmy Philhour Award for Excellence in Hospice Service is presented annually.

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