A Sunday Letter: Unexpected Things in Volunteering

Dear Chaplain,

I felt most reflective when we sat in those Sunday circles and listened to each other. I am a private person, but the passage of the year and the solemnity of the other students heightened my comfort with sharing. Of course, your indefatigable positivity and openness certainly helped. For all these reasons, I write to you as if we were simply sharing on a sunny Sunday morning.

Before my first visit to a hospice facility, I watched the PBS documentary with Atul Gawande. I believe that I can safely say that my undergraduate experience was wholeheartedly different from Dr. Gawande’s experience as a physician, and my expectations were upended accordingly. First and foremost, Dr. Gawande’s position is one of authority and knowledge. He is an accomplished physician; when he visited a patient, he seemed to have an intricate understanding of the illnesses that could carry them away at any second. His patients were also more varied with regard to their age and types of illness. Some were extremely middle-aged, while others were reaching the end of a typical lifespan. After Dr. Gawande’s video, I pictured myself volunteering at the side of a similar physician, nodding as facts and analyses were passed along.

In reality, I was more uncertain and independent. The patients that we visited were uniformly elderly. However, one could not tell whether they were on the brink of death or meant to thrive for years more. We treated all patients like they would be there the following week. In hindsight, this sounds callous and insensitive. Yet, in practice, this was a greater fulfillment of our roles. As volunteering visitors, we are not meant to provide diagnoses or predictions. Rather, we are meant to provide a moment of light in a patient’s life — a casual conversation, a funny story, a compliment when he or she dresses up.

One of the happier moments for a patient whom I visit happened recently. Our patient is a talkative woman, and she has often shared her deep sense of religion with us. My co-volunteer is of the same religion; before we left our last visit, she asked our patient if she could pray with her. They bowed their heads together, and my co-volunteer spoke quite kindly about her hopes for our patient. Afterwards, our patient seemed at peace, as if she had been soothed in the middle of a hectic day.

We occasionally talk, in our Sunday reflections, about cultural differences. I was not of that religion, yet I saw much good in promoting that kind of experience for the patient — if not from me, then from someone whom I may connect to the patient. Religion has always been a marked cultural difference between people, from my perspective. Nevertheless, in front of a hospice patient, the divisions of religions and denomination seem far fainter. The patient’s happiness is more starkly defined.

Though the visits were quite different from Dr. Gawande’s, they were my own; I did my best in them for people whom I cared about. Upon reflection, though, there is one marked similarity between Dr. Gawande’s visits and my own. I understand how he became so invested in his patients’ state of mind and their peacefulness. Before they pass away, I want them to know that someone values every day that they remain. I’m proud of the volunteers for letting them know this.

Student Volunteer