Women of Philanthropy: Karen Marshak

Karen Marshak
Former President, Service Board, Midwest Palliative & Hospice CareCenter

As strong as we try to be, we’re never prepared to hear news that will blow apart our lives. Karen Marshak experienced this when her husband, Gary, was diagnosed with terminal cancer more than a decade ago.

“My world fell apart. I thought, how can I tell my 12- and 17-year-old daughters that their father is dying?”

In a move that surprised many, including her friends and family, Karen called the Midwest Palliative & Hospice CareCenter in Glenview early in Gary’s illness. It was not a sign that she was “giving up.”

Rather, she sought out hospice as a resource that could get to know her husband while he could still make health care decisions, as well as assist in his pain management.

“The eye-opener for me was that it wasn’t just about him, but about us as a family,” Karen says. “They cared for our needs as well as his. They allowed me to be the wife and mother, and not the primary caregiver.”

Gary Marshak passed away in 2001. He was 46.

After Gary’s death, the Marshaks again turned to hospice for bereavement services, which helps mother and daughters through the healing process. They then began volunteering with Hospice in different ways, from knitting hats for chemo patients to working the facility’s reception desk.

Karen, a former nurse, also assisted in patient care, and she and her daughters participated in Camp Care, a bereavement camp for children. A stint as President of the Service Board followed.

All of this has culminated in her latest efforts, fundraising for the new, 16-bed Marshak Family Building, which will be the only freestanding hospice in Cook County. The green facility will also feature a Healing Garden, built in collaboration with the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Marshak stresses that Hospice is not just for cancer patients, but for anyone who is facing a life-changing illness or could benefit from pain management services. The organization is a resource, not a sentence.

“Don’t be afraid of the word hospice,” she says. “My husband was able to die with dignity. My daughters have good last memories of their dad.”

Karen recalls a fundraising event where her daughters, then 18 and 23, each spoke about their loss in front of 250 people.

“It’s amazing how the human spirit prevails. I watched them, so poised, so personal—they couldn’t have done that without Hospice’s support. My daughters and I realized that happiness comes from giving, and we’ve gotten that from hospice.”

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