Hospice volunteers bring care to end of life
By Sue Tiffin
Published Aug. 22, 2017
When Amanda Rowden was a nursing student working in a long-term care unit, she met a dying man alone in his final days who would make a great impact on her own life and career.
“He just kept saying to me, ‘you know, I’m scared of this. I’m scared of dying. I’m scared of how I’m going to feel or how it’s going to go,’” said Rowden. “I remember thinking at that exact moment, this guy is putting so much faith in me to help him, I need to learn.”
Rowden, who is often motivated by challenges, was driven to research how she could best help her client to accept his diagnosis and transition through his last weeks. She said nurses don’t always have an extended period of time to sit with someone, but as a student, she was able to do so as part of a learning opportunity.
“It was amazing because I followed him through that journey,” she said. “Right before he died, I remember him saying to me, ‘thank you. I was so scared and I was having such a hard time with this, and you just took the time.’”
Now in her role as hospice co-ordinator with Haliburton Highlands Health Services, it’s Rowden giving thanks to people throughout the county – about 60 volunteers – who are giving time to sit with others in the county’s two new palliative care suites, in acute care units, in long-term care or in their homes.
“I can’t say enough, the volunteers are incredible,” she said. “Who are these people? Where do they come from? They are literally earth angels. They just get placed here. Every single volunteer I’ve met, they’re amazing.”
After 13 years as a registered practical nurse – 12 in the community as a palliative care specialist with Paramed, overlapping with two years of primary care working as a nurse at the doctor’s office in Haliburton – as well as two years of teaching a fundamentals of palliative care course at Hospice Peterborough, Rowden brings immeasurable experience and passion to the role of hospice co- ordinator. Although she’s moved from a clinical role to a more administrative position, she said her impact can still be great.
“When you’re working out in the community as a nurse, you make a difference on a one-on-one basis, whereas now I’m responsible for those 60 hospice volunteers,” she said. “If I can teach them and give them my knowledge base and encouragement and mentorship, that’s changing lives on a much larger level than just one-on-one. There’s a Helen Keller quote, ‘Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.’”
So together with HHHS staff, volunteers, families and patients, Rowden works to ensure people have support in their final days, wherever they want it.
“People who want to die at home, we can support them in that transition,” said Rowden. “And we’re breaking the culture of, you have to be actively dying to receive this support. You don’t. If you have been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, it doesn’t matter how long the trajectory of that illness is. Whether it be that you have cancer and you’re dying in three months, or you have cancer and they’ve told you that you could have a year or two years to live. We’re a support for the community and the patient or resident or client, wherever they may be. We want to help and we want to get involved.”
Rowden acknowledges the training to become a hospice volunteer is extensive.
Beginning in September this year, hospice training will take place over six three-hour sessions with an online component, totalling about 20 hours in class, down from 30 hours in class to make the program more accessible to volunteers who are juggling other responsibilities, like part-time work, children or grandchildren. Becoming a volunteer might also require vaccinations, a health review and quite a bit of paperwork.
“I always go with the philosophy that if it was your parent or someone you loved, you’d appreciate knowing the volunteers are screened properly and aware of procedures,” said Brigitte Gebauer, co-ordinator of volunteer services for HHHS. “That’s why we do a lot of training, to make it a better experience for all.”
Once training is complete, however, volunteers are able to offer whatever time they can with no pressure and are supported by Rowden individually as well as through new program initiatives such as volunteer connect meetings, in which volunteers can get together to share experiences.
“It’s whatever you can give,” said Rowden. “There’s no expectation.”
Some volunteers prefer to give a few hours a week visiting clients at a long-term facility, while others choose to be on call to sit beside someone in the last moments of life.
“It’s very rewarding, and I think the volunteers will see that when they do it,” said Rowden. “They’ll see the difference they’re making for families.”
For more information about volunteering with HHHS hospice services, contact Amanda Rowden at 705-457-2941 x.2932 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.