A Bedside Volunteer's Reflection of her Experiences
What volunteering has shown me...
I often reflect on my experiences so far at Hospice House and my mind always connects to one of my first shifts as a volunteer. My first shift was memorable in the sense that everything was new and I felt somewhat unsure whether I could actually remember the pages of information we had sifted through over the previous weeks. I was no longer shadowing, so this felt quite different. But I somehow muddled through and tried not to bother Margaret too much with repetitive questions. Towards the end of my shift, I noticed a new patient being admitted and overheard the nurses saying that it was difficult to manage her pain as she was refusing her medication. I felt badly for the nurses who were trying to help, and for this poor woman who was apparently in distress and confused.
I volunteer once a week, so returned the following week feeling a little more prepared. I was in for a bit of a life lesson. As I entered the south house I caught the attention of one of the nurses and she asked if I would please watch a patient for her while she finished her morning rounds. The patient happened to be the woman who I saw being admitted the previous week. She was gaunt, barely 90 lbs, fidgeting in a recumbent wheelchair. There was concern that she would try to get up out of the chair, which she was not capable of doing without potential injury. I went over to her in the hallway and introduced myself and asked her if she would like some water. “Oh yes, yes” she replied in an excited voice and sat up straight and pointed eagerly to the dining room. “Hurry, hurry” she said and I started wheeling her toward the dining room and joked with her that there was a speed limit so I was going as quickly as I could. She seemed very jittery and animated but I reminded her that I was a volunteer and that I didn't want to be fired on my second shift so for her to please stay in her chair. She seemed to understand what I meant. I brought back a cup of water with a straw and she could barely contain herself as I handed it to her – she finished it quickly and asked for more. “Ice, ice – I need ice”. So I went back and filled a cup with ice and when I gave it to her she promptly opened up the front of her gown and down went the ice! She started ripping at the styrofoam cup with her teeth, and asked for more so in a bit of a panic, I complied thinking the ice was better than a mouthful of styrofoam, and returned with more. Down the gown it went. So at this point my mind is desperately trying to remember what chapter in our course covered this! As I was thinking of my next move, I glanced around the room and realized no one else was alarmed – no one appeared panicked – and so I realized that what was the worse that could happen? She'll be a bit damp and cold. Those can be fixed. A new gown, some blankets and all will be fine. I realized that for this woman, this is what she needed at that moment. That is why we are there. To provide comfort, support, kindness, understanding, and sometimes ice if needed. My experience that morning could not have been covered in a course. It was part of life and life is not always put on paper.
The next week on my shift I picked up my patient list and walked toward her room. It was empty. She had passed away a few days after I last saw her. I was reminded of one of the lessons we had discussed in the course. The people at Hospice House are always changing. But we all can have an affect on them, as they can on us, even if only for an hour or a moment. When I read her obituary, I was at a loss for words. Her picture showed a vibrant, beautiful woman who had been a nurse, a mother, an adventurer. I met her for a moment of her life, a moment that did not project the person that she was and that her family must have known. I think of her often when I meet other patients. What were they like in their life. The image we have of someone here is often so different to how they really were.
I remind myself that they are living their life one day, sometimes one hour at a time. My visit with a patient may take place just after pain meds were given, or they may be eagerly anticipating the arrival of a family visitor, and in that moment, they feel good. The next volunteer might find them to be very quiet and distant. It could be due to so many factors. Missing their family, feeling nauseous, feeling sad, or just not feeling talkative. We are there to make their lives meaningful in whatever way we can. Often just a smile and a gentle touch can mean more than words. Volunteering has shown me that I often won't know the true spirit of someone I'm caring for, because it is often too brief an encounter, but we are more connected than we may think. Someone else's life story can be fascinating if you step out of yourself and take the time to share – even if just for a moment.
Submitted by Sue a COHA Hospice House Bedside Volunteer
I’m told Gwen is a lovely woman in room 202 who loves visitors. I easily walk into her room, looking forward to meeting her and spending time with her. She is new to hospice house. I introduce myself and after a brief conversation she quickly asks me, “With brain cancer, I’m told it shouldn’t be long. Do you know if it will happen quickly?”
“I’m not sure. I don’t have any knowledge about that.” I reply. There seems to be an almost ease for her knowing we won't be talking about any medical aspects.
Gwen’s short, grey hair is falling out. It litters the pillow behind her head. Her body is frail and delicate. The hospice quilts cover her legs while her body wears her nightgown from home. It pink and looks comfortable. I smile and feel glad that she has what is comfortable, what she chooses, what she enjoys.
Gwen looks me in the eye. We exchange a long glance. It feels like she is making a decision about me. She has decided. She opens up and our conversation begins to flow with easy. She tells me about her daughter, her life, her marriage and how she lived on meat and potatoes. I share with her my struggles of learning how to cook for a vegetarian partner and how it’s actually gotten easy now. She doesn’t understand how and why we don’t eat meat. She is not impolite with her disapproval; she finds humor with most sentences. I can tell she finds pleasure in making people laugh. I admire that.
I hesitate on whether I should talk about myself. This time is hers, not mine. I consider that maybe she is tired and could use a break from talking. I take a risk. I tell her about school and my 4-year-old son. She lights up with delight and interest. My body lets out a sigh of relief, I’ve made the right decision to talk and open up a little. I tell her about my course and what I’m taking. She talks about going back to nursing school when she was 45. I feel inspired by her strength and story. At 40, I suddenly don’t feel like such a mature student.
I take a chance and ask Gwen if she would like some coconut gelato. She hesitates, but then looks at me with this, almost devious smile as she replies, “Well, ok, maybe just a little.”
I dispense a small amount into a bowl and mix it around to create a soft creamy consistence. I hold the bowl for her as she feeds herself; beginning with a small, slow taste. She looks at me with surprise and satisfaction. She smiles and says “Wow, that is really good, thank you.” She finishes the bowl with ease and another thank you. It feels good to bring her a small pleasure.
Gwen reminds me that life is short; it goes faster than you think. I take her words of wisdom to heart and contemplate my own life. I wonder if I will be happy with what I’ve accomplished in my life. I have an overwhelming feeling to hug my son and never let him go.
Two weeks later I’m happy to see Gwen is still here. I’m excited to see her. She is awake. I ask her if I can sit with her for a while. She agrees. Most of her hair has fallen out now. I see the changes in her face and attitude. She mentions how the medication makes her foggy, a side effect she dislikes and mentions often. We share a moment of laughter; I reach out and hold her hand, which she clutches with surprising strength. When I think it’s appropriate, I begin to loosen my grip on her hand. She disagrees and squeezes tighter, I reciprocate and remain speechless and present.
I see Gwen is getting tired. She agrees and says, “I don’t mean to be rude but I think I need to sleep.”
As I walk out the door Gwen says, “I’m sorry I won’t remember your name.” I reply, “That’s ok Gwen, I will always remember yours.” We exchange a smile. I walk out the door feeling honored for knowing such a classy, warm and funny person. I have learned so much from my friend Gwen.
Laila Burton - Hospice Volunteer
Hospice Volunteer Helps Palliative Patient with Therapeutic Touch
"Relaxation, guided imagery, creative visualization and gentle music can be very valuable in helping Hospice patients get to a peaceful, healing place within themselves."
Looking back over the 21 years I have been involved with hospice patients I see, in my mind’s eye, a whole cavalcade of patients, many of whom I can recall vividly whilst other have been gently erased. I have gravitated to the more spiritual side of the hospice mandate – and by that I do not mean religious – I wouldn’t presume to. So, I combine therapeutic touch/soothing touch with spiritual support and awareness and it has become my way of being with patients – but, it has to be initiated by the patient, not by me.
By the same token, I can usually sense or "pick up" the patient’s openness and desire to explore that part of themselves and it becomes deep, in many cases quite wonderful the difference that occurs. I may visit a patient several times before they start to mention the spiritual side of their process of living and now, of dying. By touching their body using Therapeutic Touch to feel connected, truly connected to another person merely by being in the same space with them – to be where they are, leaving oneself, one’s ego out the equation including the desire to "fix" them. Listening is the primary goal, allowing them the space, the opportunity to tell you freely what they have on their minds and – eventually, what their deepest fears are.
Guided imagery and creative visualization plus Therapeutic Touch creates an opening, and one becomes aware of the "shift" that happens within the patient. The relationship is then on a more meaningful footing. Sometimes, asking about their dreams can evoke a response and often they will say something like "do you know, I dreamed about an old buddy of mine a couple of nights ago, who died in the war and I haven’t thought about him for years" – or – "my grandmother was in a dream I had last week – she was so happy to see me and so was I to see her; I keep thinking about her ever since." These kinds of responses open up some very good discussions I can have with patients and can become a trigger for exploring that dimension.
Relaxation, guided imagery, creative visualization and gentle music can be very valuable in helping patients get to a peaceful, healing place within themselves. A perfect example is of a patient I served at Cotton Woods three years ago. The Nursing Staff had suggested Therapeutic Touch or something similar might make a difference to her well being. She was a "difficult patient" according to the staff, very prickly, very short tempered because of her dire illness... which was M.S. She had been an RN which meant she really knew her prognosis and all the ramifications ahead of her. I went to her room with no preconceived ideas how, or if I could be of any help but, I was willing to try and connect if she would allow that to happen. I had my tape recorder to play some quiet music to help the atmosphere if nothing else. "She doesn’t like to chat" I had been told, so, I gave a brief suggestion about relaxation and soothing touch and she grudgingly said she would try it and see if it helped. I told her she would probably fall asleep, that I would leave the room quietly, which was what happened and I tiptoed away... no chat, no thank you, no please come again.
I was pleasantly surprised to hear via the staff a couple of days later, the patient would like me to return. So I did, and mentioned guided imagery and creative visualization. She was interested but sceptical. I asked her what she used to do for recreation. She readily talked about the horse she had reared since a very young foal. I asked, "What’s his name?" "Equinus," she said, and I exclaimed "What a perfect name for a horse – the Latin" she looked at me with different eyes.
In that moment began months and months of a deep relationship. I would guide her at each visit with visualizations of leaving her wretched body – leaving the room she was confined to and going for a ride on Equinus... free, happy, full of health, joyful, imagining the feel of him, the smell of him, the creak of the saddle, the pure joy of exercising him in the fresh air and sunshine. It literally transformed her and made her last months bearable.
Her partner, whom I met only after she died said to me, "Have you any idea the enormous difference you made? It was such a blessing for her."
I treasure moments like these and the patients I have been privileged to serve during these past wonderful twenty-one years.
Patricia Cutfield - Hospice Volunteer
I believe palliative care is where one can receive individual care along with pride, dignity and respect from those who care for them.
Christina Parker - Hospice Volunteer
If I had to sum up in one line "What hospice means to me", it would be "Giving people hope and light in the midst of pain and grief, even if it is just a hand to hold or a cool drink of water."
Nola Schwitzer - Hospice Volunteer
What Hospice means to me is the opportunity to provide unconditional regard to an individual at the end of their life.
Dianne Keuhl -Hospice Volunteer
Hospice to me is being a part of what a true community should be. We are all very good at laughing together but we have lost the richness of grieving and sharing sorrow with those who's lives touch ours. "Fear" has caused us to try and cover things quickly in the hopes of dispelling sorrow which we often don't know what to do with.
Ruth Young - Hospice Volunteer
Hospice palliative care means many things to me, but most of all it is a place where people with life limiting illness and their loved ones can come to be treated with love, kindness and respect in a home-like environment by people who really care.
Fran McHaffie - Hospice Volunteer