Having had some exposure to hospice through my mother, who works as a nurse specializing in geriatrics, I viewed it as a unique experience in the healthcare setting. Additionally, however, I anticipated dealing with a degree of emotional trauma, as the life expectancy of the patients is less than those in other areas of healthcare. As I spent my first few months in the Pre-Med Hospice Program, I quickly noticed this reality as I was assigned to visit two consecutive patients within the first two months. Both assignments would both eventually culminate in me being notified over the phone of the patient’s passing, and for the first patient, this was on the way for my first visit.
A few weeks later, I was assigned to my most recent patient. Prior to the first visit, I was notified that she had dementia and that she could not be left alone in her wheelchair as she had a history of falls. As someone with no formal training and no experience with direct care, I became nervous when considering what could occur that I would be unable to help with. As I walked in, I greeted her, stating that I would be visiting her each week to chat. As I began speaking, she seemed somewhat robotic in her responses and only offered yes and no responses to answers. At one point during this visit she became confused and attempted to get up from her chair. I was unable to find a staff member nearby; however, I was able to encourage her to relax and sit back before an aid arrived to make sure everything was all right. Over the visits, she gradually became more interactive when I initiated conversation, and although her confusion was reoccurring, she seemed more comfortable in my presence. She claimed to not normally enjoy visitors, but she seemed grateful at the end of the visits for the company. This was a surreal experience for me. One of the most fulfilling moments during a visit was when we both began singing along to the Frank Sinatra music playing from her radio. We bonded over music and how it has changed over time.
As a result of the changes between patient assignments and the frequent breaks college students enjoy, I was not able to consistently visit one patient until later into the year. Despite this, it did not take me long to build a relationship with my patient. The hospice program, including the visits and reflection meetings, has given me a new perspective on medicine, life, and death. Unfortunately in some medical centers, the large number of patients assigned to a physician impairs the emotional connection formed between doctor and patient. This is something I believe anyone who has had this volunteering experience would like to change in healthcare. Many individuals view hospice as depressing, as one must face with inevitable death, and many feel that there is not much that can be done for the patients. I have realized, however, that some of the greatest care is offered during the end-of-life process, from both providers and volunteers, and that it is meaningful to appreciate the life of each person and see death as a spiritual movement.