Thoughts on Being a Hospice Volunteer

Having grown up with my grandparents, it is difficult for me to fully accept that one day they would no longer be the pillars of our family. When I found out about the Hospice program, I submitted my application hoping to have an opportunity to interact with the patients who have also played significant roles in the lives of their loved ones. Through the various visits since then, I have been able to gradually learn more and more of the patients, and at the end of every visit, I always looked forward to the next time that I would be able to return.

On my very first visit, I met a patient who was reclining in her bed. Even though I was rather shy at the time, she was so genial that we were soon talking about our hometowns and family members. When one of the other volunteers mentioned that she really enjoys singing, she sang a few beautiful songs for us in her native language. Signs of her heavy breathing and unstable voice from when she was speaking almost completely disappeared as she sang the clear and sustained notes. On a few of the subsequent visits, she might be sleeping or would rather rest, but our interactions always left me feeling very privileged to have been able to share part of her time and be the recipient of her warmth. My interactions with other patients have also been extremely rewarding experiences. From our conversations on nail polish, debates on the advantages and disadvantages of reading using an eBook reader vs. physical copies of books, or evaluating the lunch menu of the day: I gained a more nuanced understanding of a quote from the physician William Osler: “Ask not what disease the person has, but rather what person the disease has.” Even though communication with some patients was more difficult, they have taught me the invaluable lesson on the importance of lending an ear and truly listening.

I joined a research lab on campus almost at the same time as I began visiting patients. My time with the Hospice program so far has been an enlightening and complementary experience to my time engaged in research. From the perspective of research, patients are frequently decomposed into and become defined by the molecular mechanisms, their clinical features, and responses to treatment. Volunteering in the Hospice program has been an incredibly valuable experience that has allowed me to gain perspectives on medicine on a more intimate and individual-based level – a lesson that would have been missed if I had decided to take only the research path. From my first visit to now, my time in the Hospice program has transformed the patients from mere names listed next to  their conditions into the people whom I have been honored with an opportunity to get to know. These meaningful and rewarding experiences have further motivated me to continue on my intended career path in medicine and pursue a deeper understanding of the paradoxical nature of human life: how we can be so strong and resilient yet so delicate and fragile, all at the same time.