At the beginning of this program, I was unsure of exactly what to expect. I was passionate about gaining experience with a different aspect of medicine. Death is not commonly discussed, especially at the undergraduate level, but is an inherent part of life, and of life-saving.
During the training and orientation prior to the volunteering, we discussed ways to interact and communicate with non-verbal hospice patients. At the time, I was not concerned about this, since I had experience interacting with non-verbal athletes through Special Olympics, and other volunteer experiences where I interacted with mentally disabled children and adults. I was also very interested to learn about aromatherapy, and other relaxation techniques recommended to interact with the hospice patients to help them find comfort and peace near the end of their lives.
However, on my first day of volunteering on my own, I found that interacting with the hospice patients was very different from the non-verbal Special Olympics athletes I was used to communicating with. Both of my patients had some degree of dementia, and were bedridden. Unlike the athletes, I could not communicate effectively through actions or movement, since these patients had to stay sitting or laying down. They also had little energy to respond or communicate back to me in any way, and were often sleeping or trying to sleep when I arrived. This was difficult for me, because I wasn’t sure if I should wake them to try and communicate, or if I should let them sleep. In the end, I decided to gently touch their hand to se if they responded, and greeted them. When they stirred, I was still unsure of how to interact since I could receive no feedback as to whether or not they were enjoying my company.
I decided to try playing music, since I played piano for 13 years and felt that it was something my hospice patients may enjoy as well. I played some of my favorite composers such as Chopin, Debussy, and Mozart. I would also read them stories that I enjoy, such as Bridge to Terabithia, and Huckleberry Finn. Although I did not receive very much feedback as to whether the patients were enjoying my presence, I liked to think I could feel their hand grow less tense as I held it, and as we were listening to music, or reading a story.
Overall, I immensely enjoyed doing my best to bring comfort to the patients I visited. Although it was definitely a challenging experience, it was very fulfilling. The reflection meetings were also an amazing resource, and I enjoyed hearing other’s stories, and being able to share some of my own. It was very interesting to be exposed to many different views on death and dying, and how people and their family members cope with it. I know this experience will make m a better physician in the future, and it has opened my eyes do many different views and thoughts about death and dying.