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Aug. 12, 2022

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Vancouver hospice program relies on volunteers to offer comfort at end of life

By , Columbian staff writer
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Colleen Storey of the No One Dies Alone program speaks to volunteers during a training session at Hope Bereavement Services on Monday morning.  The purpose of the program is to provide a reassuring presence at the bedside of a dying individual who would otherwise be alone.
Colleen Storey of the No One Dies Alone program speaks to volunteers during a training session at Hope Bereavement Services on Monday morning. The purpose of the program is to provide a reassuring presence at the bedside of a dying individual who would otherwise be alone. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Colleen Storey has sat at the bedside of nearly 100 hospice patients in their last hours of life. She’s held their hands. She’s sung to them. And she remembers them all.

She remembers softly singing, “You Are My Sunshine” to one patient. He had told her it was one of his favorite songs because his grandmother sang it to him when he was a child. Now, in his 90s, the song lulled him to sleep. He awoke to a memory of his grandfather teaching him how to fish, and he described the memory to Storey. Then he looked up.

“I’m ready,” he said.

He took a few short breaths, closed his eyes and died.

“This program teaches you to live your life to the fullest,” Storey said. “You will go out on calls that will stick with you forever.”

She was describing the No One Dies Alone program.

The philosophy of the program, offered by PeaceHealth Hospice and Hope Bereavement Services, is simple: No one should die alone.

The program places volunteers at the bedside of people in hospice care who are expected to die within 24 to 48 hours without family or friends to comfort them in their final hours.

The No One Dies Alone program was founded in 2001 in Eugene, Ore., by a critical care nurse who envisioned a volunteer companion program for hospital patients who would otherwise die alone. Storey, the hospice outreach supervisor at PeaceHealth Hospice and Hope Bereavement Services, brought the program to Clark County in 2017.

“When I was in school, I took a death and dying class, and I learned that people who are dying spend an average of 19 to 20 hours alone per day,” she said. “It was an epiphany for me, and I decided that I had to get this program started. This is the thing I’m most proud of in my job.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the program had more then 80 volunteers. Now, after a two-year hiatus, it has 40 volunteers, and Storey is hoping to encourage more people to get involved.

How it works

No One Dies Alone volunteers hold a bedside vigil with patients in their last hours of life. The program supports a time when no nursing is needed, but the loving presence of a compassionate individual is valued.

There are many ways patients can end up alone in hospice. Sometimes, they have no close friends or family, or their loved ones can’t make it in time to see them. No matter their circumstances, if a patient meets certain criteria, No One Dies Alone volunteers can sign up for a four-hour shift, where they are responsible for sitting with the patient and ensuring they are comfortable. Volunteers visit patients at hospitals, long-term care facilities and more.

During a shift, volunteers can read to the patient, play soft music and assist them with comfort care. Volunteers do not perform or assist in patient care done by medical personnel.

Oftentimes, patients in their final hours are unresponsive, and volunteers are trained to watch their facial expressions and body language for signs of discomfort.

“They sit and hold space,” Storey said. “They learn to watch. They might light a candle. They might play soft harp music. At the end of life, you run a fever, and volunteers can rub lotion on the feet or hands, they can put a cold rag over the face.”

Hearing and touch are the two senses that remain until death, Storey said. Some patients enjoy having their hand held. Some enjoy music and being read to, others prefer silence.

Every patient is different, Storey said, but a compassionate presence is something nearly everyone values.

Volunteer training

On Monday, Storey held a training session for incoming No One Dies Alone volunteers. The all-day session included information about the program, the dying process and how to comfort people approaching death.

“Being in pain and being alone are the two things that people are most afraid of when they come to death,” Storey said.

Alicia Edline, a Vancouver resident and postpartum doula, decided to volunteer as a part of her end-of-life care education.

“Being with people during this very specific time of need, making it so they aren’t alone if they don’t want to be, it’s something that spoke to me,” she said.

Jean Burpee, a retired high school teacher, also said she felt called to volunteer.

“The minute I first heard about this program, I thought, ‘That’s the one, this is the thing that I’ve been waiting for,’” she said.

“I’ve had several (No One Dies Alone) volunteers tell me that they don’t feel like they’re doing much because they’re just sitting there not doing anything,” said Ginny Meeker, a registered nurse at PeaceHealth. “I’ve seen enough to see patients’ symptoms improve and to see people calm down when there’s the physical presence of somebody there. You are doing something; even if you’re just sitting there, you’re making a difference.”

Sue Dodson, a longtime volunteer who has sat at the bedside of more than 30 patients, described an average vigil.

“Usually, they’re pretty quiet, and sometimes you will never see them open their eyes, you may never hear anything from them or a response of any kind,” she said. “Our role is just to provide peace and comfort in that environment. There are just so many rewards. You have no idea how many people are affected by you being there.”

To learn more about the No One Dies Alone program, visit www.peacehealth.org/southwest/bereavement-volunteer-opportunities.

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