Last month marked the one year anniversary of my volunteering with Hospice here in Portland. I had found the gig through a search on VolunteerMatch.com. I was looking at the end of my contract with AmeriCorps up in Tacoma. Husband was already living in Portland, we were six months away from our wedding, and we had decided that I wasn’t going to look for work until after the wedding. I would take a break, plan the wedding, and work on some writing. I was a little worried about what would happen to me with that much time on my hands. I knew myself well enough to know that if I was left completely at loose ends I might as well accept the couch potato of the year award right then and there. If accepting it meant I could stay in bed for the seventh day in a row and have someone bring it to me.
So I was looking for a volunteer gig to add a little structure to my soon to be suddenly unstructured life, when I came across a small ad asking for someone who would be willing to sit with people who were dying. For those who know me well, you know that this appeals to my rather morbid sensibilities. These sensibilities are also the reason that I joined Search and Rescue, but that’s another story for another time.
In the past year I have only had two patients. Now if you get a room full of Hospice volunteers you get a rather morbid, and slightly competition like conversation about how long each of our patients live. This is how I know that it is unlikely that I would only have two patients in a year. There were a few of us who were with patients for longer than six months, but the majority of volunteers are only with theirs for a couple of weeks. I seem to remember being told that the average life span for a hospice patient is 42 days–I might be making that up.
Sometimes, every now and then, I miss my patients. They stay with me in a way that makes me feel that no matter how much time passes, I will keep the memory of each of them. I was with my first patient the longest–about nine months. I remember her the most, sometimes when I am sitting and reading, or in quiet moments in the car. I do not remember them with sadness. I am very aware of the realities of hospice. In the beginning, when I was helping my first patient do some exercises to help strengthen her ribs (to help her breath easier) I got it into my head that she was going to get better–just for a minute. Because in our society we exercise to change things, we exercise to be healthier, but in Hospice exercise is to make life more bearable–at least what little is left of it to live. As she would rhythmically raise her arms over her head, I would have to remind myself that the point of it all was to make her more comfortable, not to cure her. Hospice is in the business of palliative care, after all hope of a cure is gone.
I think maybe that is why I like to volunteer with Hospice. I know it is the end of the line, but there is still living to be done in that space between life and death. There are still kitchens to be cleaned, groceries to be bought, books to read and short (sometimes very short) walks to be had. People still have dreams and desires, baggage to sift through and hopefully unload. I get to be a part of that, maybe making things a little easier. I have honestly loved every patient I have had–all two of them. Maybe it’s the recognition of a spark between me and the patient–an understanding of reality. The thought that this could be me is never really far from my mind. It is humbling, and it constantly makes me thankful for Hospice organizations.