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A volunteer experience

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- More than a few volunteers and staff at Hubbard Hospice House are there because they have already had a taste of the kind of all-encompassing care hospice offers.

Karen Ashworth has been a volunteer for three years.

"I was first introduced to Hospice because my husband's brother had been a patient here up at the house. That kind of opened the door for me."

Then, her husband became ill and received hospice care at their home.

Both experiences led Ashworth to take the training needed to become a hospice volunteer.

"The facility here, it just felt peaceful when I came in here the first time. So, after my husband passed away, the experience I had with hospice was so positive that I wanted to be able to give back a little bit.

"And I also missed the people that had been in my home to care for my husband. So it was kind of selfish, too -- if I was a volunteer that I would have contact with them again."

She spends a lot of her time visiting patients and their families.

"It's to be able to be available to them so they don't have to feel quite as alone. I'm a piece of that big puzzle, I'm a little piece."

Hospice care "balances the circle of life in the sense that a birth is celebratory -- the coming in is such a big deal so why shouldn't the going out be such a big deal as well," Ashworth said.

"It's a celebration of sorts. That people should be accompanied and not pushed away -- our society doesn't seem to deal with death too well. I think hospice softens the sting of death, at least it does for me. To know the patient is afforded the comfort and the dignity that they deserve is a true gift."

Jim O'Neil has been a hospice volunteer for more than seven years.

"I'm here because my wife died here 11 years ago this June. She spent her last six weeks here," O'Neil said.

They knew nothing about hospice and originally O'Neil had other ideas.

"I wanted to take her home but she wanted to come here and for once I let her make the decision. Best decision we ever made. I could not have cared for my wife, I could not have bought the care if I had Rockefeller's money."

Hospice is a medical facility, "but not like any medical facility you've ever been to," O'Neil said. "I thought long and hard about how to describe this place and four words come to mind: comfort, love, respect and compassion. And if you have to take one word it's compassion, not only for the patient but for the family."

O'Neil runs errands and works the front desk where he once put up a sign, inspired by the definition of a receptionist, that read: 'Volunteer Director of First Impressions.'"

"It's a godsend to me. It's a hard place but it's a wonderful place, because we're all going to die. And when you come put someone in here that's what makes it hard, because you're saying goodbye to someone you love.

"It's been a great thing for me. I finally had a chance to give back."

Debbie LaFleur, volunteer coordinator for hospice, had moved her mother to Charleston into assisted living and then her mother had a stroke. "They came and talked to me about hospice. I knew there was hospice that helped people, but I didn't really understand what it was."

An assessment was made and the decision was to move her to Hubbard House. "And I thank God every day for that," LaFleur said.

"We didn't think she would last a week. We ended up being here for about 2 1/2 weeks. It's just so very peaceful and calm and the staff is amazing... The social workers and the nurses make sure you have all the information you need and they are there for anything. And if you don't want to be bothered then you don't have to be. Then the volunteers that come around and sing and offer you things -- you feel like you're part of a family even if you're by yourself."

Hospice requires a yearlong wait to take volunteer training after an immediate family member dies there.

"So, I waited my year and took the class and became a volunteer. I volunteered for about two years. I answered phones and did special events and things around the house... Then, the lady that was doing the coordinating job moved on -- she's actually a nurse here. And I took the position and that's why I'm here. Because I love this place."

Cassie Darnell became a nurse at hospice as a result of her mother-in-law coming to Hubbard House as a patient in 2011.

"I had no idea about hospice because I'd always worked in acute care. We brought her here on a Wednesday evening and I had no idea what I was coming into. I walked in and felt such a sense of peacefulness, of spiritual well being. I just fell in love with it."

"I went back to her room and the staff was so welcoming and reassuring. She was peaceful."

She left later that evening, and got a call about 3 a.m. that her mother-in-law had passed on quietly in her sleep.

The hospice experience lit a spark in her, she said. "I had decided that night when I came in here that I'm going to work here. So that's what I did."

As a nurse, she does assessments, comfort care, offers education to the families and emotional support. "But primarily we are directly involved in the hands-on end-of-life care," she said.

So she is right there on the front lines?

"Absolutely," Darnell said. "Wouldn't be anywhere else."

Chuck Daugherty took the volunteer training last April. His first experience with hospice was decades ago when there was no residential unit and hospice solely provided care in the home.

"So they came and did their thing at home with nurses checking in, social work kind of people checking in. So they were with us through that process and my mother died in my home."

He primarily helps out at Hubbard House itself.

"You go across the spectrum -- you can do anything from stuffing envelopes, putting birdseed in bird feeders, to the other extreme is doing vigils, which is when there is someone who is dying and there isn't family available or friends. So, they try to make sure there's someone there until the person dies. I've done a couple of vigils."

Hospice can be a place of strong encounters.

"You're dealing with life at its most profound. It includes this experiencing both the sorrow and the joy of life in a dramatic way, in a very powerful way. The sorrow because the person is dying and leaving you. The joy in celebrating -- it's a time when the family and friends get together and celebrate the life of that person. The two go together."

Reach Douglas Imbrogno at douglas@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.


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