Monday, March 17, 2008

Why Would I Want To Be A Hospice Volunteer?

Why would I want to spend time with, to even think of caring for, a stranger? I have always been afraid of death and dying; I’m even afraid of getting sick. I have enough problems of my own, and I’m still young, sort of, and I have a lot of living to do.

Well, it took me a while to change my mind. I first become a volunteer at McKenzie-Willamette Hospital after I cut my leg with a chain saw. They fixed me up so beautifully that I had to show some gratitude. I became their part-time mailman, delivering information and packages to every one of the hospital’s departments, even to the emergency room where I had already spent some not-volunteer time.

I soon became accustomed to seeing and being with sick people, and dying people, and babies just born. I realized there was a rhythm to life: being born, living, getting sick and old, and dying.

Most people want to die at home, but too many die in the hospital. I saw empty beds that used to hold sick people with whom I had become acquainted as I walked the corridors and special units; many of them did not check out of the hospital to go home.

Soon I heard about hospice, a program in which dying people could remain in their own beds at home. I began asking around and one thing led to another. I’ve been a hospice volunteer for over five years now and have cared for many wonderful, dying people.

Amazingly, it is the most important, the most rewarding thing I have ever done in my long life. I will continue to be a hospice volunteer until someone else volunteers for me.

Why? Let me tell you about Mr. B. I met Mr. B, in his 80’s, in a small, bare nursing home room with only a leafless myrtle tree and a few sparrows outside the one window to keep him company. He was a loner. He had no family, and he lay dying in the last stages of emphysema and a failing heart. The first time I saw him, Mr. B was lying naked under a sheet, skin and bones, hardly able to breathe.

I was taught in my hospice training that my job as a volunteer was to spend time with the patient for an hour or more, one or two times a week, to ease the strain on the loved-one who was giving care at home, or to offer personal contact and help to a patient in a care facility. The best advice I was ever given, was “to sit down, shut up, and listen.”

I did just that as I sat beside Mr. B’s bed, watching him struggle for breath, wondering if he would be like many of my other hospice clients whom I visited only once or twice, after which they promptly died. As if to answer my thoughts, Mr. B opened one eye, his grizzled beard hiding a lean jaw and blue grey lips. “Who in the hell are you?” he whispered.

I told him, and added that I was there to spend some time with him. He chewed on that for a while, then opened the other bloodshot eye. “What good is that?” he said, closing both eyes.

Over the weeks, I came back and continued being there with him, listening to the oxygen pump keeping him alive, hearing the moaning, the calling out and the crying from the rooms around us, aware of the facility staff passing my in the hallway. Little by little, he began to open his eyes during my visits, and tell me his story.

Mr. B was born in Mississippi; both his parents died when he was still a child. He grew up in an Catholic orphanage where most of the nuns were uninterested, but one nun who played the piano, took an interest in him. From her, he learned not only to play but to love music; he grew passionate about beautiful music and the great classical music traditions of the ages. As a grown man, he never found a real job, never used his love of music to earn a living. He had spent most of his long life being alone, traveling the rails throughout the West as a hobo, looking out of the dusty windows of fleabag hotels when flush, and sleeping under bridges when penniless.

But Mr. B loved music. And I loved music. I would come to the care facility for an hour and stay for two, arguing with him about who was the best German composer of the 19th Century, or which conductor did a better job with Mozart. 
After a week or two, he propped up his head on his pillow; soon after, he began to sit up in bed, his birdlike chest heaving with every argument. In a month, I came into his room to find him wearing pajama tops. After another month, I would find him standing, clothed, brushing his teeth when I arrived.

I learned more from Mr. B about music and about being a human being than I learned in all the colleges I had attended and all of the philosophy I had ever read. In the ten months I spent being a friend to Mr. B, I saw his health deteriorate, then rebound. At times, he could hardly lift his head from his pillow, but he often grew more animated as we talked. He began to tell me about his fear of dying and fear of the unknown. We talked about how growing old was not for sissies. Then we would talk about music and argue until he fell asleep.

On December 30, I visited Mr. B. Several care facility and hospice professionals were crowded around his bed. I knew Mr. B was really and truly dying this time. After they left, Mr. B opened that one eye again. “Richard,” he whispered, “talk to me”.

I sat down beside him and held his bony hand. I talked to him about music. I talked to him about living and dying. I sang songs and recited a few halting lines of poetry while he slipped into unconsciousness.

On New Year’s Eve, I called the care facility and talked with the head nurse on duty. Mr. B was resting comfortably, she assured me. I asked her if she would sit with him for a while that night, just to be there with him. She promised me that she would.

On January 2nd of that New Year, one of the social workers at Cascade Hospice called me. Mr. B had passed away on the first morning of the New Year with little pain.

* * *

Cascade Hospice, a non-profit organization originally created by Springfield’s own McKenzie-Willamette Hospital, is dedicated to providing medical care and comfort to a patient after his or her doctor has decided that the patient has six or less months to live. Cascade provides a dedicated staff of doctors, nurses, social workers, even massage and bathing specialists for in-home care or nursing home care to ease the distress of the patient and the burden on the patient’s care giving loved one or loving friend.

The telephone number of Cascade Hospice at Cascade Health Solutions is:


Sacred Heart Medical Center also has a fine hospice program at:


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