Volunteering for hospice has been an incredible experience. It has provided me with insight and knowledge in what it takes to work with people who are close to death. Before this experience, death was a hard topic to discuss. I understood it was an essential component of being a physician, but my patient experience with the program made me realize that hospice is an excellent place to maintain relationships with end of life patients. During the course of my time here, I visited three patients all of whom passed away. When I realized the finality of having to switch patients, it was initially very daunting. After a few more weeks with the program, I realized the most vital part of my experience was not mulling over death, but maintaining social relationships that brightened a patient’s day no matter what the circumstance.
Unfortunately, the health of my patients did not allow me to continuously see them for the whole semester. But, in the three or four meetings with each patient, I found that just the fact that they recognized me was amazing. I was able to bring some sense of diversion and comfort for an hour through activities and picture books that helped trigger memories. My favorite activity in particular was hearing about the patients’ childhoods and how life was like for them before their illness. They seemed to enjoy talking about that too. I particularly liked showing the patients old Hollywood actors and actresses that they would excitedly say they remembered because they watched their films. One of the patients I visited with disliked the facility, but when I visited with her, she focused on the tasks I brought to her instead of with her current situation, which was an incredibly amazing thing to be a part of. I would find myself forgetting that the patients were at the end of life and just focus on the one-hour we could spend together every week.
This experience showed me that dying people are still people. The families of my patients didn’t really visit very often, and I like the idea that the patients got social interaction that did not involve someone feeding them or checking vitals, etc. I think this opportunity was valuable clinical experience in that interaction with extremely sick people is a part of being a physician. Interacting with hospice patients does not always mean that there will be stimulating conversation every time. In fact, it often meant coaching patients through words and assisting in jogging their memory. However, the experience was extremely meaningful in that I was able to assist them in any way possible. I think experiencing what it is like when a patient is dying and there is nothing left to be done is an important part of being a physician. I was able to experience what it is like to see someone one week and then not see them the next. It taught me that hospice is about making the most of the time these patients have left, and I hope I was able to do that for them for one hour each week.