by John Corvese
As a hospice volunteer with HopeHealth, I visit patients who are approaching the end of life. They may have cancer or heart disease, kidney failure or dementia. They may just be tired.
When people learn what I do, they most frequently say, “Oh, I don’t know how you can do that. I certainly couldn’t.”
Death and dying, we don’t speak about that much, do we? It’s sort of like politics—not the kind of topic we talk about in polite conversation.
I’d like to tell you about something that happened to me not too long ago. I was making an initial visit with a patient—I’ll call him Brad because we keep all patient information confidential—who had just come into our hospice program.
“When I volunteer, it helps me remember my own family members who were on hospice care at the end of their lives.”
Typically, the first visit is where I talk about what I do, and the patient and I get to know each other. They decide whether they like me or not, and I, them—something like “I’m okay, you’re okay,” going both ways.
After I told Brad everything I could offer him, he asked me what my compensation was, which startled me.
“I don’t get paid anything, I’m a volunteer,” I said.
Brad stopped for a moment, then asked, “Why do you do this then?”
I didn’t respond right away. I think my eyes might have glossed-over and I started thinking, why do I do this?
“There were no bird feeders at the nursing home, so she and I looked at photos of birds together while listening to their singing on a smart phone.”
The people at HopeHealth—the coordinators, managers, doctors, nurses, social workers, bereavement counselors, spiritual counselors, certified nursing assistants, office people and volunteers—all inspire and motivate me.
Of course, it’s also about the patients and families. I’ve had the honor of speaking with mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, who told me about their families.
I’ve had the privilege to talk to veterans. They tell me stories about the horrors of war and the humor of boot camp.
I have gently held the crippled, badly misshapen hands of a 92-year-old woman with severe rheumatoid arthritis, her left knee locked in a bent position. Whenever the nursing home staff repositioned her, her eyes would fill with tears from the pain.
Back when she was home, this woman loved hearing the birds singing at the feeders in her yard. Since there were no bird feeders at the nursing home, she and I looked at photos of birds together while listening to their singing on a smart phone.
I have helped a man write the epitaph for the grave of his dear wife who preceded him in death the year before. He wanted to finish it before he died, and his words were precious.
I have sat with a man in the final stage of Alzheimer’s disease. He couldn’t feed himself and had trouble controlling his movements, but he loved Neil Diamond’s music. So we put on a CD and listened to endless Neil Diamond songs.
Hearing the music, this man—whose memories of life and family were forever lost to him, whose mind and body were rebelling against him—would close his eyes and tap his feet and nod his head in time with the music. A smile would appear on his face.
I don’t have words to answer you, but I can tell you that what I do touches my heart.
When I volunteer, it also helps me remember my own family members who were on hospice care at the end of their lives.
My aunts, Rose, Lil and Joyce.
My grandmother, Marie, who was “Memere” to me for all my years.
My father, Bill, and my mother, Loretta.
They all gave me so much, and took so much of me with them when they died.
All of these thoughts occupied me as Brad waited for me to answer. Finally, I shook off my stupor and saw him staring stone-faced at me.
“I don’t have words to answer you,” I replied, “but I can tell you that what I do touches my heart.”
Brad’s expression softened. He smiled and said, “That’s a good reason.”