Not Dying Alone

She cried out, “Mother, mother! Don’t leave me!” I had recently concluded our visit and was walking away when Ms. B began to wail these words. My throat tightened, and I was compelled to return to sit with her. Drawing on the volunteer training, I investigated her feelings by asking a few questions. Ms. B did not like being alone and she became distressed when I had to leave. After listening to her feelings, she took comfort when I shared that I would be back to visit again and that I would be thinking of her during the week. She expressed her appreciation for me coming to spend time with her. Although temporary, as she returned to calling for her mother, it was an honor to offer consolation in that very vulnerable moment.

Her expression of calling on her mother reminded me of a quote I heard growing up: Once a man, twice a child. I understood this intellectually in that a child grows to adulthood and then enters old age and becomes, in many ways, a child again. Hearing her call on her mother in her elderly age with moderate cognitive decline suddenly made this very real to me. In the process of dying some patients revert to a child-like state, either physically or mentally, and it became apparent to me that the same care and compassion that is invested into a child should be invested into the elderly as they prepare for death.

As a hospice volunteer, I witnessed how presence and attentive listening works to alleviate the isolation that often comes with the process of dying. I came to value the non-clinical care that hospice patients receive. Most of my visits included diversional activities such as talking, reading, or looking at pictures with the patients. I relished when I made them laugh or smile and I especially adored when I became tickled by some of the commentary during our conversations. Giving my patients my undivided attention allowed them to socially and emotionally interact with someone who was not focused on quickly administering medicine or feeding them. For my less communicative patient, most of the visits included simply sitting and smiling with her, even enduring minor discomfort with personal space. It was important for them to know that I was there uniquely for them and that our time was to be used in a way that they desired. In all instances, these interactions offered human interaction and provided comfort for my patients and developed my interpersonal skills.

My time as a hospice volunteer can be defined by personal and professional growth. I have a greater appreciation for being present and spending time and listening to others. Life nor death should happen in isolation, but should be enhanced by supportive family, friends, and volunteers. I can attest that as a direct result of participating in this program, I am more comfortable engaging in discourse about death and preparing to die which will help me to be a more empathetic physician. Being in the service of those who have been determined to be close to death caused me to consider my own mortality many times throughout program. As a future health care professional, I hope to consider the emotional as well as physical needs of my patients and ensure an end-of-life that they desire.