As I walked into the surgical ICU to be a Caring Companion for John (name changed for patient confidentiality), I rehearsed how I would introduce myself to him, and how I would respond to him in case he did not want my company. I was told that he was not receptive to medical care and medical personnel, yet he was scared to be alone. I was pleasantly surprised to see a man, who looked to be in his 60s, to be very welcoming. Due to his medical condition, he was not allowed to eat, and most of what we talked about during my first visit with him was about food – from simple bread, to fried tomatoes, to this favorite shrimp dish. However, all he craved that day was a spoonful of Cream of Wheat.
During my medical education so far, I have learned the importance of food and how it is needed for survival, but my conversation with John made me realize the power of food. He was unwilling to talk to anyone, but opened up to me through his desire to eat. It was a humbling experience, and I will think about John and the power of food every time I place an NPO order for a patient, especially the terminally ill.
John was a highly educated man and well versed in cultural diversity and world history. Besides food, our conversations included Indo-Pakistan conflicts, terrorism and its impact on United States minorities, the education system of the United States in comparison to other countries, his love of Frank Sinatra’s music, and his desire to travel to exotic places. The latter conversation led to him wanting to watch the movie Out of Africa once more. He had a portable DVD player, and I promised him that I would return with the movie and that we would watch it together.
Acquiring the movie took longer than I hoped. When I returned to the hospital a few days later, I was told that John had been discharged to a hospice facility just an hour before my arrival. I was devastated to break my promise. I watched the movie with him in mind. A few days went by and I enquired about John only to find out that he had passed away. Tears rolled down my eyes as I thought of my conversations with him. I tried to remind myself that death had freed him from his sufferings, yet I felt defeated.
This occurred at the time when I was rotating through TMC’s labor and delivery unit as part of my pediatric clerkship. Immediately after learning about John’s death, I had to report to my clinical duty. Three new babies were born while I was away on lunch.
Although, I have known that life and death are part of the same circle, it was not until that day that it really sank in. One minute I was talking about John’s death, and another minute I was examining newborn babies. This experience allowed me to reflect on patient priorities, the power of establishing connections through understanding of human needs, the appreciation of death as a continuum of life, the sense of defeat that is inevitable when promises are left unfulfilled, and the honor, joy and satisfaction that comes from listening to the last tales of a dying individual.
Being a Caring Companion for No One Dies Alone has provided me with an immersive education in empathy, compassion, love, respect, selflessness, and strength that cannot be surpassed by a medical school degree alone.
UMKC School of Medicine
MD Candidate, Class of 2017
Becoming a Caring Companion was easy for me. I didn’t even think about it when the call came out for volunteers. I attended training and was armed with good knowledge and compassion for my first vigil. THEN…a vigil was activated and the sign-up arrived in my inbox. Knowing deep inside I had to do this, I signed up for a 2-hour block. Saturday morning, 8:00 a.m. arrived, which was the time I signed up for. I signed in at the Spiritual Wellness office, found the patient information, grabbed the NODA bag, and off I went.
Before I walked in the patient’s room, I was very nervous and I thought, “What am I doing here?”
“What am I going to see?” “What was I thinking?” However, I took a deep breath and entered the patient’s room. As with all vigils, this is a moment I won’t forget.
Introducing myself, asking if I can sit with them, than receiving either a verbal or body language welcome takes all the jitters away. I pull a chair up to their bedside, touch their hand and tell them who I am, and try to learn who they are. If their “My Story Board” is filled out, there can be some good information to start a conversation. Otherwise, I take a moment to ask questions and fill it out the best I can. If they can’t talk, I try to get a ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’ response. I had someone almost fly out of bed with enthusiasm when we were talking about his favorite food - ice cream!
As I sat with the patient at 8:00 on a Saturday morning, I thought, “There is no better place to be than here with this patient, right now. There is nothing more important than spending time in thought, reading or talking to someone who is afraid and lonely.”
I have participated in several vigils and still feel that it is the best part of my day. When I leave the patient, I know that I was a ray of sunshine to them, for that small moment of time. We all have busy lives, but I know as a Caring Companion, that there is no better place to be, than with someone who truly appreciates ANY amount of time you can give.
– Lori Bruce
As I made my way through the halls of TMC on my way to visit Paul (name changed for patient
confidentiality), I could feel the apprehension rising inside me. Would Paul be conscious? If so, would he want to talk? Would my words and presence be comforting, or just an awkward meeting between two strangers as one of them was experiencing the most difficult time of their life? You see, Paul was dying, and he had no family or friends to be with him.
I was a new No One Dies Alone (NODA) volunteer. Paul was one of the first patients I visited. Approaching his room, I reminded myself of the reasons why I chose to do this ministry. The mother in me couldn’t help but think about the “what ifs” - if one of my children was dying alone with no one there to be with them, whether due to the inability to physically be with them, the
struggles of forgiveness, or the complexities of estrangement and life choices, it didn’t really matter. In my heart, I knew that if I could not be there with my dying child, no matter what age, I would not want them to die alone. I held their tiny hand as they entered this life, and I would want someone to be holding their hand as they left it.
When I walked into Paul’s room, carrying my NODA supply bag, I noticed immediately Paul’s condition and agitation. My trained eye told me that he truly only had a few days left of this life. He was pulling weakly at his covers, saying phrases that did not make sense. I introduced myself, pulled up a chair close to his bed and grabbed his hand in mine. Almost instantly, he stopped pulling at his covers and became quiet. The words of comfort that I was so afraid would be hard to form seemed to come naturally. Within just a few moments, Paul drifted off in a peaceful sleep. For the remainder of the time I was with Paul, I did what I would hope anyone would do if Paul were my son. I held his hand and prayed for him, asking God that, when it was Paul’s time, to please bring him home into his heavenly presence.
As I left Paul that afternoon, I was filled with a deep sense of peace that lingered as I spent the evening with my family. I noted this sense of peace after subsequent visits with other NODA patients as well. I soon came to realize that I have not been the gift to these patients, but on the contrary, they have been a gift to me.
– Ginnelle Ries