As a Palliative Care Unit volunteer at St. Michael’s Hospital, Rhea Kinghorn tries to make her visits with patients as meaningful as possible, by making them feel at ease and trying to instil a sense of peace. “We talk – I usually just listen – and sometimes I hold their hand.”
On one visit, she saw that her patient was floating in and out of consciousness, so instead of chatting, she began quietly massaging the patient’s feet. “It’s amazing how soothing and calming a gentle foot rub can be for patients, whether they’re aware or not.”
Kinghorn recalled that the patient suddenly opened her eyes and in a moment of lucidity, turned to her husband and flashed him “the biggest, warmest smile.” And then she was gone. “Even though she had just passed, her husband was comforted by that smile, believing that she had gone on to a better place.”
Working on the Palliative Care Unit of St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, volunteers like Kinghorn witness life and death situations like this on a regular basis – a challenge many people would consider emotionally draining. Yet they continue to donate their time, effort and energy and go through all the ups and downs of the unit, saying they get far more out of the experience than they give.
Many of the 40 Palliative Care Unit volunteers have been volunteering for more than 15 years and a few have 25 years of service, almost as long as the unit has been in existence. The unit is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.
“This is a special group of people who are an integrated and integral part of the interdisciplinary health care team,” says Bill Wade, Palliative Care Unit co-ordinator. “They come in to make this a better today for the patients, their families and our staff. We couldn’t cope without them.”
Volunteer Joan White has been baking cookies in the family lounge for the patients and families once a week for at least the past decade, “because it smells like home.” When laid out with coffee and tea, the afternoon treat attracts patients, families and even some staff on the unit seeking a small respite in their day.
Unlike other placements, the volunteers on this unit do not have a task list to complete every time they come in. As volunteer Charlene (Chuckie) Shevlen puts it, “We simply offer some basic comforts.” This might mean checking in on a patient, bringing tea or coffee to patients and their families, tending to flowers or helping patients read or write letters.
One way Kinghorn made the unit more comfortable was by introducing “bereavement books” in the newly renovated family lounge as a way for families to pay tribute to close relatives. The first scrapbook is already filled with artwork, photos, newspaper clippings and heartfelt messages. Flipping through the pages, it is clear family members appreciate the opportunity to share their love and memories in this form.
Volunteers are included, along with the doctors and nurses on the unit, in the many cards and letters of thanks Wade receives from grateful families. When a long-time volunteer on the Palliative Care Unit came to be a patient herself on the unit recently, fellow volunteer Mary Joy Sloane thought nothing of going down to the hospital’s Gift Shop to pick up a small vase of flowers for her.
The patient and her husband were so touched, he immediately made a donation to the Palliative Care Unit fund so that all incoming patients to the unit could have “welcome flowers.” He wrote: “Thank you to the medical team and volunteers for the amazing support they give to patients and their families at an emotional time.”
As Shevlen says, “Everyone on this unit tries to contribute to making the very best living experience for our patients. Everything that happens on this unit is part of life; it’s not about death. It’s all part of a journey and we try to make their part of the journey here the best it can possibly be.”