A Bedside Volunteer's Reflection of her Experiences
What volunteering has shown me...
I often reflect on my experiences so far at Hospice House and my mind always connects to one of my first shifts as a volunteer. My first shift was memorable in the sense that everything was new and I felt somewhat unsure whether I could actually remember the pages of information we had sifted through over the previous weeks. I was no longer shadowing, so this felt quite different. But I somehow muddled through and tried not to bother Margaret too much with repetitive questions. Towards the end of my shift, I noticed a new patient being admitted and overheard the nurses saying that it was difficult to manage her pain as she was refusing her medication. I felt badly for the nurses who were trying to help, and for this poor woman who was apparently in distress and confused.
I volunteer once a week, so returned the following week feeling a little more prepared. I was in for a bit of a life lesson. As I entered the south house I caught the attention of one of the nurses and she asked if I would please watch a patient for her while she finished her morning rounds. The patient happened to be the woman who I saw being admitted the previous week. She was gaunt, barely 90 lbs, fidgeting in a recumbent wheelchair. There was concern that she would try to get up out of the chair, which she was not capable of doing without potential injury. I went over to her in the hallway and introduced myself and asked her if she would like some water. “Oh yes, yes” she replied in an excited voice and sat up straight and pointed eagerly to the dining room. “Hurry, hurry” she said and I started wheeling her toward the dining room and joked with her that there was a speed limit so I was going as quickly as I could. She seemed very jittery and animated but I reminded her that I was a volunteer and that I didn't want to be fired on my second shift so for her to please stay in her chair. She seemed to understand what I meant. I brought back a cup of water with a straw and she could barely contain herself as I handed it to her – she finished it quickly and asked for more. “Ice, ice – I need ice”. So I went back and filled a cup with ice and when I gave it to her she promptly opened up the front of her gown and down went the ice! She started ripping at the styrofoam cup with her teeth, and asked for more so in a bit of a panic, I complied thinking the ice was better than a mouthful of styrofoam, and returned with more. Down the gown it went. So at this point my mind is desperately trying to remember what chapter in our course covered this! As I was thinking of my next move, I glanced around the room and realized no one else was alarmed – no one appeared panicked – and so I realized that what was the worst that could happen? She'll be a bit damp and cold. Those can be fixed. A new gown, some blankets and all will be fine. I realized that for this woman, this is what she needed at that moment. That is why we are there. To provide comfort, support, kindness, understanding, and sometimes ice if needed. My experience that morning could not have been covered in a course. It was part of life and life is not always put on paper.
The next week on my shift I picked up my patient list and walked toward her room. It was empty. She had passed away a few days after I last saw her. I was reminded of one of the lessons we had discussed in the course. The people at Hospice House are always changing. But we all can have an effect on them, as they can on us, even if only for an hour or a moment. When I read her obituary, I was at a loss for words. Her picture showed a vibrant, beautiful woman who had been a nurse, a mother, an adventurer. I met her for a moment of her life, a moment that did not project the person that she was and that her family must have known. I think of her often when I meet other patients. What were they like in their life. The image we have of someone here is often so different to how they really were.
I remind myself that they are living their life one day, sometimes one hour at a time. My visit with a patient may take place just after pain meds were given, or they may be eagerly anticipating the arrival of a family visitor, and in that moment, they feel good. The next volunteer might find them to be very quiet and distant. It could be due to so many factors. Missing their family, feeling nauseous, feeling sad, or just not feeling talkative. We are there to make their lives meaningful in whatever way we can. Often just a smile and a gentle touch can mean more than words. Volunteering has shown me that I often won't know the true spirit of someone I'm caring for, because it is often too brief an encounter, but we are more connected than we may think. Someone else's life story can be fascinating if you step out of yourself and take the time to share – even if just for a moment.