Michael Bernhagen, Director of Community Engagement with Rainbow Hospice Care in Jefferson, WI, is well-acquainted with the American medical system. From 1994 to 2003, he worked in business development for Aurora Health Care (Wisconsin's largest integrated healthcare delivery system) and the Medical College of Wisconsin (a multi-specialty, academic group practice). During this decade, his time and energy were spent focusing on things like "physician incentive compensation plans", “revenue growth”, “patient acquisition”, and “referral relationship development”. Those priorities changed in late 2003, however, when his mother, Rita, passed away from congestive heart failure and vascular dementia. Watching her slow, physical and cognitive decline as well the struggle of his family and her healthcare providers to deal with the process inspired him to join the hospice movement in 2004.
Since that time, Mike has been on the road working as a hospice advocate. Over the course of that journey, his travels have taken him to countless destinations - clinics, churches, hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, senior citizen centers, disease specific support groups, and private residences – where he’s talked with literally thousands of people from all walks of life. But, it has been with the dying and their loved ones that his most meaningful and rewarding conversations have taken place. In fact, one of the great lessons he’s learned from terminally ill people is that most are not afraid to die; rather they are afraid of the dying process. Some of the common fears they have are:
- Am I going to suffer?
- Am I going to be a burden upon my family?
- Will I have to leave my home?
- Will I die alone?
- Will I still get to see my doctor?
- Will I leave unfinished business?
In these documentary films, Mike sees the potential they have to make a difference - both in terms of de-mystifying the dying experience and inspiring people to begin the conversation about their end-of-life wishes well before the finish line is in sight. Mike and his wife, Denise, reside in Waukesha, Wisconsin along with their two children, ages 17 and 13.