A New Experience with the Aging Population: the Dying

I have been volunteering with the aging population since middle school, so I jumped at the opportunity to join the Pre-Med Hospice Volunteer Program with Ascend. I have previously volunteered in nursing homes, but hospice has been an entirely different, difficult, and rewarding experience altogether.

In my prior volunteer experience, I always dealt with long-term patients. So although I saw many aging patients, some with complications, even advanced dementia, I rarely saw dying patients despite my large amounts of exposure. Another major difference was that in my prior experiences, I often had personal connections with the patients I visited. It was a local, Catholic nursing home with strong ties to my parish and the grade school I attended. As such, I went to school or church with relatives of many of the patients I visited. So, establishing connections with multiple patients, many of whom I was not able to meet more than once through Ascend, was a new experience for me.

I think the most striking thing when working for Ascend Hospice was the differences I saw across the patients I was privileged to meet and serve. I spent time with patients who were incapable of speaking because they struggled to breathe, and I also spent time with terminally ill middle-aged patients who were alert and well enough to talk for hours despite their prognosis. The variety among the patient population was astonishing, and it confirmed my desire to continue working with this population in the future, hopefully throughout my career in medicine and clinical research. This variety truly reframed my view of the aging population.

One particular experience during my time volunteering struck me, the aforementioned middle-aged patient. He was diagnosed with terminal cancer in his mid-fifties. He has had rounds of chemo and multiple operations. For a time, he seemed on the mend, until the improvements came to a screeching halt. No matter what they did from that point forward seemed to be able to make a significant change in his condition. He decided it would be best to stop pushing so hard so he could spend time with his family and go out peacefully. This tough decision clearly weighed on him, and I do not think it was one he was fully set on, either. When we spoke, he did plenty of justifying his decision, and even talked about how things may have ended up if he had made a different choice.

This struck me, because as we have discussed so many times in this group, people often shy away from discussing death. People who are dying sometimes do not even acknowledge their own state; sometimes families try to prevent loved ones from knowing their own prognosis. Therefore, his candidness almost came as a shock. It was particularly startling because it was in such stark contrast to the patient I had been visiting previously who was unable to communicate effectively. It is one thing to sit quietly with someone who is dying and another altogether to have an open and – sometimes scarily and sometimes humorously – honest conversation about going through the dying process.

This experience, and all my experiences with Ascend, have taught me how to take things in stride and how to deal with the unexpected. Because although my prior nursing home experience prepared me for the general setting of working with an aging process, it was never nearly as touch and go as working exclusively with the dying. I have never been made particularly uncomfortable talking about death, but my experiences as a hospice volunteer have really taken things to the next level for me. Being able to hear from and in turn support patients throughout the dying process has both affirmed and inspired my desire to continue my work with the aging population and researching the genetics of aging. I look forward to continue working with Ascend this summer and my senior year as I continue my journey toward medical school and a career in clinical research. These experiences certainly serve as an important foundation and inspiration in this ongoing journey.