A few minutes that changed the life of an Austin daughter

12:00 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2018 Lifestyle
Brittany Morrison, named the 2017 Big Giver, volunteers for Hospice Austin. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

On Sept. 8, a beaming and poised Brittany Morrison stood at the podium in the banquet room of Hotel Van Zandt. She had just been named the year’s Big Giver by the meta-charity I Live Here I Give Here during its fall event, the Big Give. The award honored her volunteer work during the previous two years for Hospice Austin.

Few in the banquet hall could have guessed the path that led the 29-year-old Austin Title employee and mother of a young child to this proud but sad moment. Fortuitously, Morrison has become very adept at telling her story.

“Growing up in Austin, I heard the names Hospice Austin and Christopher House many times,” Morrison calmly told the crowd. “It did not carry much meaning for me personally until I was 22, a recent college graduate, and my mother had been given two weeks to live. As an only child of a single parent with little immediate family, I was overwhelmed with fear and sadness.”

The staff at Hospice Austin stepped in and, in a short time, prepared her as much as possible for what was to come.

“The day of my mom’s passing, I called for a nurse early that morning,” Morrison said. “I had some concerns and wanted to be sure she wasn’t in any pain. A nurse arrived shortly thereafter, made my mom more comfortable, and went on to see her other patients.”

A couple of hours later, the phone rang.

“It was the hospice nurse,” Morrison said. “She asked if she could come back to check on my mom. I didn’t hesitate at all to say yes. She returned, and within 10 minutes of her arrival, she came downstairs to tell me that it was time to say goodbye.”

Morrison’s father, Albert Byrd, had died when she was a senior at Hyde Park Baptist High School. Her mother, Lisa Hewitt-Byrd, struggled with alcoholism, something Morrison doesn’t always reveal when she talks about her Hospice Austin experience in public settings.

“I don’t want to taint the story of who she was to me,” Morrison said later in an interview. “She was an amazing woman, but it’s something you face when you know an addict.”

During her Big Give speech, Morrison went on to talk about that day in 2010 when her mother died.

“As I walked into my mom’s bedroom, expecting the grim and frail woman I’d grown used to seeing, I noticed that the nurse had taken special care to prop her up, brush her hair, and move her toward the light coming through the window,” Morrison said. “She looked so much more peaceful and dignified. If (the nurse) had not made the extra effort or had the genuine concern to come back, that experience would have likely looked much different. Instead, I was able to have a peaceful, powerful and final experience with my mom before she was gone. It was the hardest few minutes of my life. But instead of fear and uncertainty, I felt sure of what was happening and could better process it all. This woman, a stranger to me and my mother, was undoubtedly my saving grace that day.”

Her mother’s finances were not in good shape and the medical bills had already mounted for Morrison, just out of college. Hospice Austin, one of the region’s few nonprofit hospices, was still able to help.

“If they had not been available, it would have been even more traumatic and painful,” Morrison said. “They help those in need regardless of their financial position. And their support did not end at my mother’s passing.”

About 18 months later, Morrison was still battling sadness and grief.

“My husband, being the smart man that he is, recommended I consider grief counseling,” Morris said. “So, I turned to the only place I knew, Hospice Austin. I began their bereavement counseling program and continued it for eight months. My first six sessions were complimentary because my mom was a Hospice Austin patient, and the subsequent sessions were based on my income, making it affordable to me. (It) was absolutely life-changing. It provided me a sense of peace and allowed me to grow in ways I couldn’t have expected. It was one of the best things I have ever done.”

Five years after her mother’s death, Morrison wondered how she could give back.

“When Brittany contacted me in 2015, she said that she wanted to learn about Hospice Austin’s needs and how she might support our patients and their families through philanthropy and volunteer work,” Megan Chin wrote for Morrison’s Big Giver nomination. “When asked about her connection to Hospice Austin, Brittany told an incredibly moving story about how Hospice Austin helped her family. She has since shared her story with others who have experienced a loss so that they understand that they are not alone in their grief. She has also shared her story with Hospice Austin donors.”

Morrison, who discovered that it was too painful to volunteer directly with the hospice’s clients, has no plans to stop spreading the news.

“Hospice Austin is an organization that I will always hold dear,” Morrison said. “I hope to be a steward for their mission and bring awareness to the importance of end-of-life care. You cannot always anticipate the need for a service like Hospice Austin in your life, but you’ll certainly be grateful to have them when that time comes. I know I was. There are countless others who would agree — they are truly a one-of-a-kind group.”

How has Morrison, otherwise not a public figure, faced the crowds?

“I’m pretty tough,” she said. “I’ve been through a lot.”

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