Hospice volunteering has been an integral part of my college experience and has come to define my undergraduate third year. I would never have imagined that I would get the opportunity to meet so many unique patients and their families, forging meaningful bonds as they progressed through their hospice care. It was consistently fulfilling to be able to spend my Fridays and Saturdays with patients, molding my role to their needs and providing needed companionship. At times nurses would even allow me to aid with patient care, giving me invaluable first-hand healthcare experience that served to cement my desire to go into the medical field.
The time I have spent within hospice has greatly influenced my current thoughts of death and dying. Prior, I generally viewed the process of dying in a negative light. Patients’ health would slowly decline, leaving them increasingly less able to perform once basic tasks. They were essentially “failing,” and this loss of function would be accompanied by a great amount of grief on the part of loved ones left behind. However, hospice has shown me that death is more nuanced and can be viewed as the closure of old doors accompanied by the opening of new ones. For patients, death is a release from their weakened, pained states. In many instances, they recognize their failing states and are frustrated with their condition. To them, death provides an avenue to move on from this phase of life when medical treatments are incapable of curing their ailments. For families, death can be just as impactful by reuniting estranged kin and rekindling shared bonds. One patient expressed to me his disappointment in how his family had slowly drifted apart throughout the years. However, his passing marked an important occasion for the family as they were once again together and sharing their emotional burden, comforting and supporting one another.
The most poignant experience I’ve had with hospice was with a young boy only a few years older than myself. I was surprised to see someone of his age in hospice care, as I previously held the notion that hospice was restricted to the elderly. However, the boy was in need of medical care because of his constant seizures stemming from a neurological disorder that affected motor control but left his thoughts intact. I saw him as being trapped in his own body and initially couldn’t even fathom how I, as a student with so little experience, could possibly provide any help.
I quickly learned that he could communicate with thumbs up or down responses. This led to some conversation and the realization that I could read to him. I went through the sparse options of books available and he chose one of those generic spy thrillers you would find from the supermarket checkout. As I started to read, the boy held out his hand, raised from the hospital bed. At first, I was confused. His flat upturned hand wasn’t a sign I recognized until the thought dawned on me, “He wants me to hold his hand.” I tested my hypothesis by gently resting my palm on his, with my hand immediately being locked into a tight grip. For the next two hours I read to him, with my grip squeezing harder as he endured several seizures. The session ended when his mother arrived, and she thanked me profusely for spending one-on-one time with her son.
At first I felt like I hadn’t done anything that special, but I then realized how I interpreted the situation; others could have found the boy unapproachable and not pressed on to provide the companionship I did. That day I learned that something as basic as human compassion should never be taken for granted. His mom told the nurses about my positive interaction, and volunteers are now encouraged to read to hospice patients. It amazed me that I could have such a profound impact on a patient while being just a student.