How A Volunteer Program Works To Ensure No Hospital Patient Dies Alone

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When it’s not possible for family or friends to be at a patient’s bedside in their final hours, a volunteer program in hospitals called No One Dies Alone works to ensure that terminal patients aren’t by themselves when they die.

It started in Eugene, Oregon, in 2001, and now volunteers can be found in hospitals across the country. Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson talks with Marilyn Judson, a volunteer with No One Dies Alone at UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica.

Interview Highlights

On what it’s like to sit with a person while they’re dying

“Most of the patients with whom I’ve sat have been non-responsive. In other words, they don’t open their eyes, they don’t speak, but we’re told that the last senses to go at the time of death are hearing and touch. So our training involves letting them know what we’re doing, giving them information, ‘Hi, this is Marilyn, I’m here to just keep you company, I’m a volunteer with the hospital, and I’ll be here holding your hand and moistening your lips or whatever it looks like you may need.’ And then from there, I often — if I’ve had permission from the nurses or the family — I often lift my Golden Retriever therapy dog, Frank, up onto the bed with them, first put down a clean sheet, and then lift Frank up next to them so he’s kind of lying along their side. So that gives this soft, warm animal presence next to them.”

On what she does while she’s with a patient

“…What I often do is I’ll hold a patient’s hand, and then, if they’re responsive, I ask their permission. If they’re not, I just quietly repeat some phrases for their well-being, that go along the lines of, ‘May you be happy, may you be free from suffering, may you be at ease, may you be free.’ And I keep repeating those phrases in my mind, usually directing them to the patient, but every once in a while, if I feel like I am becoming overwhelmed, I’ll direct them to myself silently, and maybe stroke the patient’s head during some of that, or just continue to hold his or her hand. And what those phrases do is they keep me in the room, they keep my mind from wandering. They keep me focused on this drama that is taking place in front of me, this person is soon to die.”

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On death as a cultural taboo

“There’s much about death that’s frightening. I’m fond of saying it’s this culture’s last taboo. But, you know, we do all have the same path, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. We like to think that each of us — especially if you’re American — is gonna live forever, and it’s not the case. There’s always been something mysterious to me, it’s been a poignant mystery ever since I was a child, about death, and I’ve long wanted to understand it better, to explore it… there’s something about being in a room with a dying person that’s on the edge of that frontier, the edge of that unknown country, that’s like looking into the eye of God. It’s just a sacred time. And I feel, in spite of how unpleasant it might be in some cases, I feel privileged to be there and to be helping with this passage.

“It’s very emotionally draining, and I’d do it again in a minute. It’s both heart-wrenching and soul-filling at the same time.”

On the emotional effects of sitting with patients

“I’d say maybe 15 or 20 over the last several years. And when I’m finished, often I’m drained, and I’ll call a friend, or I’ll just go home and hug my husband and hug Frank, and after a little while, I feel OK again. But I turn down very few of the calls that we get, when someone is close to dying, and they don’t have any friends or family around them. I usually make an effort to go in, because, like I said, I think it’s a privilege and also I know how much I would want that for myself.

“My mother ended up dying without either myself or my dad at the bedside — that’s probably part of what motivates me in this program. And fortunately, there was a nurse there, Kathy, who held her hand the last several minutes of her life, and said, ‘Your husband loves you, your daughter loves you.’ And that was a great comfort to me, and I like to think it was a comfort to my mother as she took her last few breaths. So I guess I do it partly for that, and then just… sometimes when I’m with a patient, I’m aware they’re dying, and then it makes my own life more precious. I’m simultaneously aware of the gift of my own life, and the crushing sadness of eventually losing that life. And it’s because life is framed by death that, if you really face that, really accept it, internalize it, then every moment of life becomes more poignant, more precious, less likely to waste it on trivia.”

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