One of the hardest things a person can go through is being in palliative care alone. When patients don’t have family or who’s family can’t be there for whatever reason, dedicated volunteers from the community offer to keep patients company during their final days.
For almost 20 years the Pontiac Hospital Palliative Care Unit has been running a volunteer-based program that started as a way to bring respite to families and patients alike. Shirley Green began the program and after she retired and could no longer run it, Carole Valin and her husband Rick Valin wanted to carry it on.
“Nurses are still involved, but they appreciate us being there because we can help with so many other things, besides the medical, which is much needed,” Carole said.
Since 2010 the couple has run the volunteer program at the hospital. They recruit, assign shifts and hold monthly meetings. Over time they also bring in speakers to talk to bereaved families about how to deal with these difficult times.
They are currently putting a call out for more volunteers. They need more people to help fill three shifts a day (each only running for four hours). They are also faced with the reality that a majority of their volunteers are the elderly who have not all been able to come back because many of them are still worried and scared of covid. As of now they have 30 active volunteers.
When covid first hit they had to completely shut down their volunteer program and have only been able to come back safely in August 2022. “Now we’re back. But in a very small capacity, which is very sad because at one time we were quite thriving,” said Carole.
“People really missed us because we go and do things like talk to the patients and a lot of times it’s not the patients because sometimes they’re semi-comatose so they’re not really with it, but it’s the families that need someone to talk to you. We are giving them a break and we make them coffee or tea or just sit and listen or play music for them,” said Carole.
The program was initiated because at the time when Green moved to the area there wasn’t anything like it. Green has been the driving force behind the program. “When she was well she really put her heart and soul into this program,” said Carole.
After facing so much grief themselves, Carole and Rick saw the importance of the program and knew they had to make sure it stayed open. “Death has been part of what we had to deal with, and the worst thing is dying alone,” said Rick.
Although they are not doctors or counselors, the volunteers are there to help families deal with the loss of a loved one either by listening, being by their side or handing out pamphlets or journals to help them cope with and come to terms with the loss.
To qualify volunteers will go through an interview process, do a course and train on hygiene. After doing that they spend at least three shifts with an experienced volunteer to show them the ropes. But also at any point, if the person does not think it’s something they can handle there is no commitment to stay.
“I took the course and that’s when I decided yeah, I think I could do it. I just didn’t think mentally or emotionally I could handle it but I could,” Carole said. “I mean, it’s not easy, especially if it’s somebody you know, but I mean, you never get used to it. But you just try to be there for the family and that’s all you can do.”
The Equity spoke to Shirley Ann who has been volunteering her time for the program for almost 14 years and still she comes back. For her she has always been a volunteer in similar places and finds doing this work fulfilling and important. “To be here to make life as comfortable as possible for the person that is in palliative and be a representative to the family and be of some assistance in between the needs of the room and staff. And if you can do something to make this workload lighter for the staff, just little things,” she said.
It has its hard days but in order to do the job the person needs to have a desire to help others and the ability to sympathize with grieving families, explained Ann. Also having this job allowed her to care for her husband in their home for three months when he fell ill, she stated. Through everything she has learned along the years she was able to implement it in her home, and got to spend more time with him.
When asked how she deals with the emotionally taxing part of the job she said: “If you have a strong faith in God, you know from the day you come that you’re going to be going some day so it’s really out of your hands.”
There are three rooms in the unit and each room has things to create a familiar atmosphere, such as wall paintings, a radio, comforters, books and a kitchen with a fridge for families to be able to spend the night with their loved ones. There is also a whole cabinet of donated knitted socks, blankets and shawls. Every now and then the volunteers will try to add things to make the place more comfortable to feel like home, like a lazy boy they recently purchased through donations.
“It’s the only place in the hospital you can bring your pet,” added Rick.
If it’s for you it is incredibly rewarding, mentioned Rick. The job mostly entails comforting the families but at times the patients have no family and they just want someone to talk to them. “I think we’re making a big difference in easing the transition from life to death,” he said.
“Come into the hospital and get an impression of what it looks like,” said Rick. Carole added, “We’re totally funded by just donations, usually from families that have had to use a palliative care unit because they’ve lost loved ones, and they just saw how well the department was run. So we’ll get donations that way. So we have a very healthy account.”
Rick and Carole both are asking for community members to come and volunteer their time to help keep the palliative care unit open. It might not be easy especially working in a community you know so many and are bound to come across someone you know, but at the same time they highlight that it is rewarding. “I’ve cried a lot up there too, it’s hard not to, but crying with them is important too you know. You’re just there and sometimes you can be stronger, but other times it’s just like, I know this person so of course I’m feeling bad,” said Carole.
To reach Carole and Rick Valin call them at 819-647-5609 or email them at email@example.com.
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