Before I began volunteering, I did not have a clear idea of what to expect from the hospice volunteer program. I knew that I wanted to form meaningful relationships and gain exposure to patients and the struggles that occur during this stage of life. Through volunteering, I gained new perspectives about comforting someone through their last years and death.
One of the most surprising aspects of my volunteering experience was interacting with a nonverbal patient. At first, the prospect of visiting my patient seemed daunting and intimidating. I was not quite sure of what to do during my visit. How was I supposed to communicate with her? Would my presence even matter if she remained in a confused state for most of the visit? These are the questions that flickered through my brain before my first visit.
During my first visit, I actually learned a lot about my patient and myself. When I walked into the room, I saw the myriad of family photos and mementos of her life surrounding her room. I began to see her as a person, instead of just a patient, a person with family, and friends, and cherished experiences. I introduced myself to her, and began talking with her, despite the awkwardness I felt. As time went on, I realized that in her own way, my patient did connect with me. Sometimes she would laugh or reach out her hand for me to hold. I like to think that even on the days when I visited and just sat with her helped her find comfort. I found that even though we couldn’t communicate by talking we had some interests in common. For instance, we both liked listening to Fred Astaire and reading Jane Austen novels. Reading some of the prompts from hospice helped me get more comfortable with my patient. The little details, like being mindful of myself as I came in, made a big difference. Just being present in the moment made a difference in our interactions.
Visiting my second patient exposed me to the conflicting feelings that individuals near the end of life experience. She seemed very appreciative towards me for visiting her, making me realize the impact that my time visiting had on her. My patient seemed resilient and placed her faith in God, stating that she had lived a long, fulfilling life. However at other times, my patient described the helplessness she felt, as she had lost most of her independence and had to rely on others. At times, she seemed scared about being near the end and at others she seemed ready. Her feelings reminded me of the exercise completed at one of the hospice meetings. The volunteers went around the room and put stickers next to descriptions they thought of when they imagined death. Some of the descriptors were positive and viewed death as a beginning instead of the end. Other descriptors associated death with silence and finality.
Volunteering exposed me to the reality of death, and the fact that there are many different ways to think about death. My experiences have shaped my future endeavors in that they have strengthened my desire to go into medicine. I believe that as a doctor, I will recognize that my patients are more than a file, and that the smallest things I do may impact them in a powerful way.