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Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 4/17/17. Alexis Loudenslager, Demystifying Death and Dying conference organizer and UTC student intern, spends time with Welcome Home residents on April 17, 2017. Welcome Home is a residence for the low income and homeless who are terminally ill.

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Matters of death: Welcome Home hosting spring enrinchment series

For more information

To find out more about Welcome Home of Chattanooga, or to contribute to its mission of helping the homeless with end-of-life care, call 423-335-5842 or go to www.welcomehomeofchattanooga.org.

More events

Upcoming events in the Welcome Home of Chattanooga Spring Enrichment series include:

› Friday, May 12: Death Cafe, 5:30-7 p.m. at location to be determined

› Friday, June 9: Caring for the Caregivers, 5:30-7 p.m. at Universalist Unitarian Church

For more information go to www.welcomehomeofchattanooga.org or call 423-355-5842.

At age 37, Chrissy Wilbanks never considered death until her doctor told her she had two weeks to live.

That's when she dropped years of self-destructive habits and stressful relationships to gain as much time as she could with her 15-year-old son and 20-year-old daughter.

"Now I know what my purpose is," she said Monday at Welcome Home of Chattanooga, a residence that provides shelter for the seriously ill and compassionate end-of-life care for those in need.

Facing the possibility of death gave clarity to Wilbanks' life.

Her story is among many that motivated Welcome Home Director Sherry Campbell to organize a spring enrichment series that focuses on dying.

"We are having the conversation," said Alexis Loudenslager, a UTC social work intern and organizer at Welcome Home.

Most people wait until they're in the emergency room or in ICU to talk about death, and doctors have to make difficult decisions in time of crisis, said Campbell.

As part of the series, hospice volunteer Taylor Hinton-Ridling will host a Death Cafe at 5:30 p.m. May 12. The cafe increases awareness of death with a view to help people make the most of their lives. On June 9, Dr. Bob Zylstra of University of Tennessee School of Medicine will host "Caring for the Caregivers" at Universalist Unitarian Church of Chattanooga.

Campbell hosted an all-day conference on death called Demystifying Death and Dying on Friday at First Baptist Church, Golden Gateway.

The conference informed people about available care for those with terminal illness, estate planning and caregiver education. It debunked false fears about hospice care and encouraged talk about death.

"In our society, death has become the elephant in the room," said Campbell.

Conference proceeds supported Welcome Home, the nonprofit that Campbell co-founded after working more than a decade as a hospice social worker and watching homeless terminally ill people die on the street because they had no place to live.

Since Welcome Home opened in March 2015, it has housed Wilbanks and more than 30 low-income or homeless people who were terminally ill.

Wilbanks beat the odds. She outlived her two-week death sentence doctors gave her in October 2016 and celebrated her 38th birthday April 5.

Preparing for death gave her the will to drop bad habits and bad relationships that aggravated her congestive heart failure. Under the care of Welcome Home staff and volunteers, she dropped 56 pounds in less than six months, all of it fluid from edema (swelling).

Doctors no longer predict her death, and she's scheduled to move out of the shelter in May. She vows to return as a volunteer.

"The awareness of death enhances our living," said Roy Remer, director of Education and Training at Zen Hospice in San Francisco. He gave the keynote address at the conference Friday.

Although some people don't want to talk about death, he said, "it's a rite of passage every living person will take."

Contact Yolanda Putman at yputman@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6431.

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