Over the past seven months, my hospice volunteering has been an invaluable experience that has opened my eyes to an area of healthcare that many people tend to avoid. The end-of-life experience is a deeply intimate one and is packed full of emotions, both for the patient and their family. There isn’t much that can prepare someone for the final months of life. However, with proper sensitivity and awareness, it can become one’s richest time on Earth. From reading the impactful Being Mortal by Dr. Atul Gawande, to interacting with the patients that medicine had seemingly failed, I have learned that the end of life isn’t a time to fear, but a time to cherish one’s life.
Although many equate hospice with failure, it most definitely isn’t, since it may enable a patient to enjoy their final time with friends and family instead of pursuing painful and ineffective treatments. An elderly woman that I once visited at Allegheny General Hospital exemplified this. Although she was alone in a chair when I walked into the room, she seemed opened to conversation, so I sat by her and shared an hour full of stories with her. At first, she lamented on her internal debate between going home and staying at the hospital. But after talking with her, she and I both agreed that it would be better for her to go home where she could more easily enjoy the comfort of family. She confided with me about the difficulties encountered at her age. Her husband had passed already, and her family wouldn’t be around 24/7, meaning that she would be quite lonely at home. However, I reminded her that since she lived so close to her daughter, they could readily visit at any time.
One of the most memorable aspects of our conversation were the memories and stories that she still recalled from her past. She loved to travel around the country to gamble casually. She told me stories of going to Niagara Falls and Las Vegas to play the slot machines. These were important stories worth cherishing and sharing with others, as it illustrated just how exciting a life she had in past years. One story in particular exemplified how one act of kindness could go a long way: On one gambling excursion with her friends to Atlantic City, they walked passed a line of panhandlers before entering the casino. Although most patrons don’t pay them any attention, she decided that day to give about $5 to one of them. Later that day, when she played spin the wheel, she shockingly won $10,000, more than she had ever won. Before I left her room that day, she reminded me that it doesn’t hurt to show acts of kindness.
As hospice volunteers, we give our times to others who don’t have much time left, providing conversation and human contact in an otherwise dreary hospital environment. Although some of the patients I visited were non-responsive, I understood that even my presence could be soothing to them. My time in the hospital, as well as learning from powerful works like Being Mortal have opened my eyes to the importance of hospice and end-of-life care. When people realize that treatments aren’t going to help anymore, making that seemingly tough decision could ensure that the end of one’s life is filled with peace instead of pain.