Hospice Reflection

When given the opportunity to volunteer with hospice patients at the Wayne Center in Wayne, PA, I was eager to help but also a little apprehensive. My mind was fresh with the death of my grandfather, who had been diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy just years earlier, a degenerative neurological disease with no known cure. Watching my grandfather and my family grapple with his disease was extremely painful and exposed me to an uneasy reality: there isn’t always a triumphant cure or a happy ending. I am typically fiercely goal-oriented, always wanting to find the solution to the next problem. For my grandfather, there was no solution, and he passed away my sophomore year of college. I decided to join the hospice program because I thought doing so would make my grandfather proud. I am pleased to say that I believe I accomplished this goal, while also learning other things about myself and about medicine along the way.
During my experience as a hospice volunteer, I have gained exposure to different patients navigating the complexities of dying. I was fortunate enough to make relationships with two women, Ester and Patricia. My experiences with these women were very different – Ester was talkative and enthusiastic while Patricia was often quiet and unresponsive. From my time with Patricia, I learned to appreciate the beauty of silence: sometimes it doesn’t matter that we aren’t conversing. I learned that simply being a presence could mean so much to someone. With Ester, I felt more at ease, and we were able to discuss many facets of her life. Just as our relationship was blossoming, I received an email that Ester had passed away in her sleep. I had been planning on visiting her that afternoon. I was deeply saddened to receive this news and was reminded instantly of my grandfather’s passing. Prior to this experience, I had suppressed a lot of those painful feelings, and I was now forced to confront them head on. I learned that I am often uncomfortable thinking and talking about death, and this experience has given me an opportunity to explore why I have those feelings.
My experience volunteering with hospice patients has afforded me the opportunity to broaden my viewpoint of how the medical profession provides service to patients. I now have a better understanding that all treatment is not goal-oriented or outcome-driven. Problems cannot always be solved. At times, like in hospice, doctors must focus on service to others by providing comfort and compassion. When I become a doctor, I hope to draw on this experience by seeing patients as human first and foremost, and I hope to treat the person as a whole rather than define a person by their illness.
I would like to thank our volunteer supervisor, Marina McGough, for helping to organize and facilitate this program. Marina’s enthusiasm for the program was very evident and motivated students to have a similar passion for this work. I also think the reflection meetings with Chaplain Joyce Tompkins were very beneficial. I found it both helpful and enlightening to be able to discuss the process of death and dying with Joyce and with other Swarthmore students.