I was pretty nervous when I started volunteering in hospice care. Looking back, I guess I just didn’t know what to expect. I thought it wouldn’t be much different from my previous volunteer experiences in the ER and ICU, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.
On one of my first nights as a volunteer, I accompanied a nurse as she checked on each of her patients. The last patient we visited was Mary, an elderly woman with end-stage breast cancer. When we entered her room, she greeted us with a huge smile and the nurse introduced me as a future physician. Rather than focus on her pain, Mary offered me words of encouragement and said that I looked like a doctor already. She wanted to hear of my plans and interests, and was intent on putting me at ease. It worked. We then talked about her family and friends, hometown, and love of sports. I listened; we laughed. There was no talk of death or dying. Walking home that night, I realized that I had been so caught up in trying to determine what to say or what not to say to someone during their final days, I had forgotten that these patients were more than just their disease. They were people, all with many different life experiences and stories to tell. On a number of nights after that first one, I had the privilege of offering friendship and support to other patients and their families. From listening to Mary’s life story, watching an old western with Frank, and sitting with Joe during his final moments waiting for his family to arrive, I learned that I didn’t have to know exactly what to say, and there were times when I didn’t have to say anything at all. I just needed to be there and to listen.
Volunteering in hospice care has been an eye-opening experience and has changed my perspective on medicine. In my previous volunteer experiences, I was always caught up in the science underlying every disease and diagnosis. But I have come to realize that there is so much more to medicine. I learned that the practice of medicine is just as much emotional, as it is intellectual. This experience also helped me learn more about myself. Before hospice, I was never comfortable dealing with death and grief. I was afraid of those feelings and avoided talking about them at all costs. Spending time with hospice patients allowed me to confront those fears and better understand both death and the feelings of grief that follow.
I am thankful for all that I learned during my time as a hospice volunteer, as it will prove invaluable throughout not just my future career as a physician, but also my personal life. And above all else, I am grateful for having had the opportunity to meet so many wonderful people.