A Glimpse into the Work of a Hospice Volunteer

Peg Gallagher, Volunteer Visitor and Radha Mallery, Director of Volunteer Services at Hospice of Santa Cruz County share their experiences of comforting those facing the end of life.

Each fall and spring, Hospice of Santa Cruz County invites our community members to become Volunteer Visitors.  These special volunteers participate in a training program that prepares them to take care of practical tasks or simply extend a hand to hold to hospice patients and their families.  Volunteers may run errands, help prepare a meal, read to a patient, or just share some quiet time. Their presence can make it possible for a caregiver to take a needed break for a few hours. Recently, director of volunteer services, Radha Mallery, sat down with volunteer visitor, Peg Gallagher to talk about volunteering for Hospice of Santa Cruz County.

Peg Gallagher became a volunteer visitor in 2011 and has supported patients in their homes and in residential care facilities.

Radha:  Why do you do Volunteer Visitor work?:

Peg:  I like helping others at a time in their life that’s important and significant to them, and being fully present with somebody. I don’t have any history with them and to be fully present to whatever their needs, wants or concerns are is a wonderful experience.  I really enjoy those moments of connection.  There’s a purity to it that you don’t get with most people because usually you are coming in with a lot of baggage.  With hospice patients there is no baggage just the purity of the one-on-one connection.  I didn’t expect this, I was just looking for an opportunity to give back in our community.

Radha:  Do you think it is because they are at the end of life and it makes it more authentic for them?  Or is it more real because they are really down?

Peg:  What you see right away is all the losses they have suffered, yet they’re still alive.  That’s the real beauty.  As a person dies they suffer all of these losses; they figure out what is really important, what they want to be about and as they do that, I get to be a part of it and a witness to their experience.  It’s very incredible.  In our culture, we talk about heroes as sports players or business people, while they do great and significant things – different from the ordinary person, the people who are dying are the absolute heroes to me.  They have a hospital bed and that’s their existence and they will greet me and be happy to see me and be alive in that moment and after all the suffering they go through, that’s pretty incredible.

Radha:  What is it that moves you the most about the work?  You said all of your experiences are great, knowing you as I do, some of the experiences you’ve had haven’t been easy.  There’s been some that were difficult.

Peg:  I thought what volunteering would be is that I would come in, sit down in a chair by a bed and the person would be there and I would read to them or write letters for them or watch television with them and that would be that.  While those activities all occur, every visit and every person is different and unique in its own way.  I can visit with somebody and they can be in a wheelchair and we go for a walk outside and I’ve been with people who are in a great deal of pain and suffering and I’ve helped communicate with the nurse to come relieve the pain.  I’ve been with someone who actually died and that was an amazing experience, I felt very honored to be included with the family to be present with them at that particular sacred time.

I’ve run errands, picked up the house, the full gamut.  What I always try to do is no matter what’s going on, where the person is, or what’s happening – I try to connect with them to figure out what has meaning and purpose for this person and how can I reflect that or bring that to the foreground for them.  To facilitate it or step back because they are already doing it.  I think that the connection the Volunteer Visitor makes with the person and their family is really critical, it opens up all the possibilities that occur for the volunteer and the patient.

Radha:  How do you answer the question, “Doesn’t this make you sad?” Or respond when people say, “I could never do that”.

Peg:  At times it is sad.  People’s life circumstances can be sad and certainly as a young mother with teenage children is dying, that is a heartbreaking circumstance.  To me, to be present with that person and talk in depth about what is important to them, what is significant to them, takes it to another level.  It transforms the sadness into the give and pull of life.  We don’t get to pick when we are going to die, but we can choose how we will and what we want to be remembered for and what our legacy is. I remember one woman in particular, she worked with children, she talked of how her own children were her legacy and how each child she worked with was her legacy.  That mix of sad and joyful, it’s a hard but authentic experience.

Peg:  How do you see volunteers grow/change from the training and from this work?

Radha:  I see them change in a way that when we come together in support group or when we are talking on the phone, I talk with them in such a way that I understand that their experience is opening their lives and allowing them to be more fearless about facing their own mortality.  It gives them the opportunity to actually be in that authentic place that you talked about.  To actually experience that firsthand with somebody so that hopefully when they reach that point in their own life, (the dying process), they can remember and draw on that when they are facing death themselves.

I also see that our volunteers want to work as a team, they’re almost like a tribe.  Again when they come together they feed off of each other’s experiences and they learn and hospice is the conduit.  They are able to really learn from each other’s experiences and that is the greatest teacher of all.

I see how they have hesitation about going into certain settings, like a reluctance to go into a facility, they can have that hesitancy, and we ask them to go because we don’t have anybody else and they of course say yes and they realize that “I can do this” or “I can be in this setting”.  It can also be the opposite, they only want to go into facilities, no individual homes and then they go and it empowers them.

I see that they become really wonderful advocates for the people that they visit, that again is empowering.

Peg:  What kind of ongoing support do you provide volunteers?

Radha:  My team and I get calls every day asking for support around different situations.  We give them one-on-one support talking to them.  The volunteers also have access to other team members.  We have twice a month support groups.  One in Scotts Valley and one in Watsonville in the evenings.  Volunteers are able to come to that and receive support that way.

Peg:  What’s most inspiring to you in working with volunteers?

Radha:  I almost started to cry when you asked me this question because I am so moved by the level at which people show up and to the extent that they show up when asked.  Whether it’s simply running an errand or sitting at the bedside when someone is actively dying and everything in between.  I am so moved by the level of their commitment and their engagement for what we ask them to do and their love of the work.  It’s truly inspiring.  Every time we have a support group or training I’m re-inspired, the enthusiasm and dedication is infectious.  In the midst of it, they keep a light heart – there is levity in the gravity.  There is always a fun side of this work, there is no exception to that.  People find the lightness in it and it’s quite magnificent.  They bring joy and jokes and in a time when our culture perceives as the most difficult thing we can all experience; death.  Which it is difficult, but our volunteers find the joy and the light in that, it’s like magnet.

Peg:  As a volunteer, the support that I have received from you and your team is outstanding.  Any time I’m unsure or worried about something; when one of my patients dies they are always accessible.  It’s uncanny, they always know what to say, not trying to fix me, but just to be with me and help me go through whatever issue is occurring.   It’s been wonderful, I feel so supported and so helped and I don’t have any kind of fear that there will be trouble.  I can talk to you Radha and I’ll get the help that I need to be able to handle any situation.

I remember when I signed up being concerned about it.  Will I be able to do it for a whole year?  The work was so inspiring and such a gift, I’ve gone beyond a year!  I’m still going strong and liking it so much.  What people are generally asked to give is 4 hours a week.  The time goes so fast.  It’s kind of interesting, every person I have visited – the four hours have been distributed differently.  Sometimes it’s a block of time, other times I will go to facilities, I’ll go 2 or 3 times a week and break it up across the week so the patient can have more visits during the week have something to look forward to, that somebody is going to come and visit them.  You can vary how you spend your time. It’s funny because I had those concerns in the beginning and they were not relative to the relationship and the dynamic of the relationship.

Peg:  If somebody is not sure about whether or not they could be a volunteer how do you help them through that?

Radha:  We have a conversation about it.  Right from the get go I tell people it’s a different kind of volunteering.  You may not know if you have the mindset to be able to do it, but the interview itself will reveal a lot.  I’ll ask the questions that I think will draw out whether or not I think that you’re ready.  It’s ok if you’re not and I really respect that it’s not the right thing for everybody and if you can’t do it there are other ways you can get involved with the agency.  That way you get to take a little step at a time. Maybe you’ll be a Volunteer Visitor or maybe you won’t.  Maybe you help with staff support or administrative offices or events.  We appreciate the courage you have here to come and talk about. We know it’s a big commitment and we have the skills to determine if it’s right for you.

Hospice of Santa Cruz County volunteers are a remarkable and dedicated group of individuals and an important part of the patient care team. They are drawn to hospice for different reasons, yet they share a common desire – to be of service and help others at this precious time of life. Volunteer Visitors are understanding listeners, the ones who extend a hand to hold, providing companionship and emotional support. Like a friendly neighbor they also take care of practical tasks: provide transportation, run errands or prepare a meal. Sometimes their presence makes it possible for a caregiver to get away for a few needed hours of respite.

Hospice of Santa Cruz County is seeking friendly, compassionate men and women to join their Volunteer Visitor program. Training begins September 23, 2014 and applications are due by September 15th.
This 8-session training prepares volunteers to support patients and their families both practically and emotionally. Bilingual volunteers and military veteran volunteers are especially needed. Interested potential volunteers can contact Volunteer Services Manager Radha Mallery at 430-3006 or email her at rmallery@hospicesantacruz.org.  The volunteer application can be downloaded from the Hospice website, www.hospicesantacruz.org/make-a-difference/volunteer-opportunities.