Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Volunteers at Tampa General Hospital provide companionship for the dying

From The St. Petersburg Times. In the picture, from left, June Rogers, the Rev. Bill Baugh and Cathy Phillips are part of Compassio­nate Companions.

TAMPA, Fla. — His body lay crooked on the hospital bed, head propped up slightly on a pillow, sun shining brightly in his Tampa General Hospital room.

Only 28, the blue-eyed, strawberry-blond young man was nearing death.

Doctors could do nothing more to fight the cerebral palsy and other medical issues decimating his body. It was time to take him off life support.

But no family members lined the side of his hospital bed. No friends anxiously paced the hallway outside his room. No flowers. No cards. No letters.

So, before doctors removed his breathing tube, they waited for June Rogers.

She's one of about 20 volunteers at Tampa General with an unusual job:

Make sure no one dies alone.

Across Florida and the country, medical institutions are growing more aware that people are dying alone in hospitals.

They often are transients, estranged from family or simply outlive their friends and relatives.

Hospitals are adapting, doing more to ensure a tender end, particularly in the Tampa Bay area.

Tampa General recently launched a program, Compassionate Companions, to connect volunteers with dying patients who have nobody else when they pass. Other area hospitals, including St. Anthony's, St. Joseph's and Morton Plant Mease, are in the process of starting similar programs.

Deborah Grassman, the director of the hospice program at the Bay Pines VA Medical Center, said hospitals are expanding their focus.

"They no longer deny that people come to hospitals, and yes, they sometimes die," she said.

But starting new hospital programs is complex.

It took about a year for Cathy Phillips to get the Tampa General program up and running. Determined that no one should die alone, she persevered, touched by her own encounter with a dying hospital volunteer.

She got a call a few years ago from longtime Tampa General volunteer Nesia Van Hees. It was the night before her heart surgery and she was alone.

Hees worried she would not make it through the procedure. She wanted to be with someone.

So Phillips rushed in.

"I don't think she ever shut up to take a breath," Phillips said with a laugh, recalling the three-hour talk. "I think she knew it was going to be her last opportunity to say all of these things and let all of these things out."

She talked about her years as a governess for well-to-do families, about growing up in Holland and about the Nazis coming to her village, forcing people to put them up and feed them.

Hees didn't survive the surgery. Phillips was the last person to talk to her.

"I don't think anybody should die alone," she said. "We're not born alone, we don't go through our lives alone, and you shouldn't die alone. You should have someone with you."

The volunteers have no script.

Some talk. Some read out loud. Some sing. Some will just sit and hold patients' hands.

Many volunteers have lost loved ones of their own. Most say having someone at their deathbed is what they would want.

They look for meaning and purpose in their task.

"It is really helpful to become comfortable considering your own death," said William Baugh, director of pastoral care at Tampa General.

He said he thinks patients sense volunteers' comfort. And that's good.

Instead of shunning death, they try to embrace it. They call these final moments sacred. A truly humanizing experience.

"It adds a preciousness to your own life," Baugh said.

Rogers, the 67-year-old Tampa General volunteer and admissions worker, felt it.

"It was probably the most beautiful experiences I've ever had in my life," she said.

Rogers arrived at the man's hospital room on a hot summer day a few weeks ago.

She walked over to his bedside, gripped his hand and stroked his head.

They were ready.

Within moments, a doctor started removing the tape holding the tubes in place.

His blue eyes stayed open and she could feel him squeeze back, but he didn't appear to be conscious, she said. He struggled to breathe.

"When he died, it was like a peace," Rogers said. "I could see peace in his face."

She sang to him, holding his hand for about 15 minutes.

"He was someone's son at one time," she said. "He shouldn't have been alone."