BUFFALO, N.Y. — Hospice and Palliative Care Buffalo has 1,500 volunteers and paid staff who help patients and their families deal with serious illness and death. The man leading it all, Hospice Buffalo CEO and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Christopher Kerr, is considered one of the "Selfless Among Us," but not exclusively for his work with the agency.
Annually, as many as 5,000 patients are cared for by Hospice and Palliative Care Buffalo staff and volunteers — 1,100 every single day. The Hospice Buffalo campus was the first independent free standing hospice unit in the country and in 1978 it offered the first palliative care in a hospital, Buffalo General. Under Dr. Kerr's leadership it has grown to be one of the most elite of the 6,000 hospice agencies in the nation.
For over four decades the organization has grown and innovated, but the mission has always been the same — to provide physical and emotional care for patients with a serious or life-limiting illness, and their families.
"Particularly in this day and age when clinicians are forced to go at a pretty fast rate, it's a privilege to sit and take time to see people in their home, in the context of their lives, with consideration of their family," Kerr told WGRZ's Melissa Holmes.
Much of the work done in hospice is holistic care, which Kerr said focuses on the things people value during the hardest time of their life.
"I think all of us who do this work are truthfully inspired. We see people in some pretty tough spots, but we also see the best of humanity," he said. "We really see the best. We see strength. We see courage. But mostly we see love. And just to be a witness to it and in some ways participate and be helpful, is gratifying in a way that's really hard to describe."
Kerr's research on patients' visions and dreams as they near the end of life has recently garnered international attention. His book "Death is But A Dream: Finding Hope and Meaning at Life's End" is now published in 10 languages. His Netflix and PBS special has won international film festival awards.
"Dying changes your vantage point and it changes your perception and perspective. So there's this introspective journey they go on. and most typically they're reunited with the best parts of living. They're made whole," Kerr said.
See WGRZ's previous report on Dr. Kerr's book and documentary here.
His study on end-of-life dreams and visions is just one of Kerr's passions. Another passion began on the horse farm on which he lives in East Aurora.
"That is a very vibrant, life affirming, soul lifting place to visit," he said.
In 2017 immigrants and refugees living in Buffalo's food deserts desperately wanted land to grow and harvest their own crops, so Kerr let them use his land.
"One year we just started to convert some horse paddocks where we keep our horses outside and we started to convert them to vegetable gardens, and it just grew and grew and grew and grew," he said. "To get the kids out and playing and fresh air and good food and back to their traditional roots and teaching from one generation to the other how they grew crops and harvested, it's got this whole life."
Now it's called the Providence Farm Collective, and it has grown so much that last year about 300 of those farmers harvested 90,000 pounds of food. They even earned enough money to buy their own land and move their farm operations to Orchard Park in April 2021.
"They use it for their own families, some of it was redistributed back to their own communities, some within the food ecosystem in Buffalo, but it's hard to describe the richness of this program now in terms of its educational offerings, it's employment opportunities. It's really a remarkable story."
To learn more about the Providence Farm Collective, click here.
Kerr's work with the farm, and with his hospice patients was forced to slow down last year though, when he was diagnosed with tonsil cancer in July 2021. He finished chemotherapy and radiation in January 2022. He said that time being a patient instead of a doctor changed him.
"I think what it's done is it made me be on the receiving end and being healthcare processed along an assembly line," he said. "There were remarkable people along the way that were very caring but there are times in the process that it doesn't feel like the most humanizing experience. I knew that. It's one thing to know it and it's another to experience it. It's made me treasure even more how important it is to protect and advocate for the right space for clinicians and patients to relate to one another."
As selfless as he is, Kerr doesn't take ownership for the success of Hospice Buffalo. He says they can only offer the exceptional care they do because of the support and generosity of the community.
"This arose from the community. It's supported by the community. A lot of the things that we offer are actually done so at a loss. But it's made up largely by donations from the community, by the patients and the families we serve," Kerr said.
To nominate a person to be featured in WGRZ's "Selfless Among Us" series, email Melissa.Holmes@wgrz.com
To see past "Selfless Among Us" stories, click the videos below.