Prior to my time volunteering at a hospice, the closest I had ever been to death was when my grandfather passed away when I was seven years old. And even then, my experience with the grief and aftermath of his passing was felt thousands of miles away from the tiny Pakistani village encased by acres and acres of farmland where he had lived his entire life. It is hard for a young child to understand death and as I look back, I know that even though I knew more about death than most kids did at my age, I did not fully realize the depth and complexity of what it meant to pass until much later.
I am fortunate to come from a background where death has not paid frequent visits. Thus, it was natural to feel nervous and even a little stressed on my first official day of volunteering at the Arcadia Health Center through Kindred Hospice. There were four of us altogether and it was decided that the first day would be spent visiting all the patients that we would later be individually assigned to. Any nerves I had earlier felt quickly dissipated when we made our first stop at the side of an elderly man, who despite his failing memory, eagerly told us about everything from his love for fishing to his career and wife. It felt so natural to sit around him in a circle and talk about what was on his mind and even though the visit only lasted a couple of minutes, it was so heartwarming to see a big smile on his face as we left. We introduced ourselves to four patients our first day and each time we left a patient’s bedside or wheelchair, I felt more and more amazed by the task we were taking on and how much a few minutes could do to make someone feel cheerier and less alone.
After spending time with a couple of different patients my first few weeks, around the middle of January, I was assigned a single patient to direct my attention to. With her, I learned what turning old looks like; the meaning of senescence. Over the span of a couple weeks, I watched her go from a lively woman with sparkly blue eyes who politely smiled “it’s alright” whenever I offered to tell her a story or ask her if she was in pain to a frail figure in a chair who uncontrollably sobbed through the mornings when I visited. As time passed, she seemed to continuously shed weight and muttered to herself in Polish more and more, her vacant eyes searching the ceiling. With her, I also learned the impact a dying person has on their family members and friends. Sometimes, I would be there at the same time as her daughter and many of those visits would be spent listening to her daughter’s worries and fears about her life and her mother’s remaining days. In our time paying attention to the dying, we often forget how much pain the family of a dying person goes through. Volunteering at hospice has taught me to never underestimate the impact you can have on any person who is going through the grief and pain associated with death – whether it is the patient themselves or a family member or friend.
Presently, I still visit the same patient I have been visiting since January. My favorite moments when spending time with her happen when she repeats an English word she suddenly remembers and we both excitedly celebrate her recollection. Volunteering with Kindred has given me a new appreciation for seeking a career in health and has allowed me to experience the importance of interacting with patients. My time as a hospice volunteer has further shaped my aspiration to become a doctor by showing me the sacredness of life and has enabled me to reflect on my own life and develop a greater appreciation for my relationships with other people. Ultimately, I am deeply thankful for this experience and look forward to continue working in the field of health.