Coming to terms with the end

The last nine months serving as a volunteer have been truly a whirlwind of emotions. Not knowing what to expect as I walked into my first patient visit was one of the more nerve-racking experiences I have felt in a very long time. In particular, even though I knew my patient’s medical status and how long they had been at the facility, I had very little information about what made her who she is, and how she could benefit the most from my weekly visits.

My first patient, Monica, was crucial to my understanding of how to approach any patient receiving hospice care. Physically, she was limited in movement, however mentally she was sharp as can be. She was not afraid of death, and she was at peace with the fact that truly her only option was to make herself as comfortable as she could be. Her health problems had progressed to a point where there was no cure, and any treatment that could prolong her life would greatly decrease her quality of life.

Monica and I only spent a handful of mornings together; fortunately she was in stable health, and no longer needed hospice. During our time together, Monica let me know exactly what she wanted and needed from me; quite honestly, she was fairly demanding, but it was because she knew exactly what would make her feel better in the moment, and I greatly appreciated that.

A few weeks later, I received a new patient assignment. I felt nervous, but this time I felt more excited than nervous. My new patient, Bethany, was quite different than Monica. Bethany had very advanced dementia; to the point where she was not aware of the care she was receiving, where she was, or even who she used to be. Our first visit was difficult, as I had to warm up to her and try to understand who she was, even when she was not even able to verbalize much about who she was or what she needed.

I slowly learned to read her cues and to adjust my actions in order for Bethany to crack a little smile, which was so rare during my first few visits. I began to understand how to make her feel more comfortable and familiar with me as a person, even though she was not able to remember whom I was or why I was there.

My range of experiences with Monica and Bethany taught me more than I could even imagine about death, and my attitude towards it. Monica was able to take away the factor of fear in death. She beautifully verbalized how fear no longer is a factor when one is at peace with how they lived their life and how they dealt with different relationships. Monica’s attitude towards death taught me how to be a better volunteer by helping me identify the greatest needs of my patients, and addressing them as best I could. On the other hand, even though she did not explicitly say it, Bethany was more afraid of death. Bethany communicated in facial expressions and sounds. Bethany taught me that as a volunteer, a small action can have a lasting impact, and that making a patient a little more comfortable during an hour long visit can greatly impact the rest of their day.

I am thankful for the range of experiences I had with different patients. I am closer to understanding what death is, and demystifying how scary and obscure it can be. Furthermore, this experience has made me more patient and understanding of people who are going through tough times and may be facing a totally new life outcome. This in turn has made me more reflective and mindful about how I interact with those around me.