Many people die alone.
They near the finish line and, perhaps through no fault of their own, they have no one around to hold their hand, to tell them everything’s OK, to bear witness to their final milestone.
But, for almost four years, volunteers with Columbia Memorial Hospital’s No One Dies Alone program have worked to prevent this situation.
As patients await their curtain call — as organs fail and consciousness fades — the volunteers sit by the patients’ bedside, reading to them, playing music, touching their hand or forearm, monitoring their movements, looking for signs of pain or discomfort, and alerting the hospital staff if anything seems amiss. They commit to being present with the patients and advocating for their needs, a task the volunteers call “holding vigil.”
“Our job is to make sure that the patient is as comfortable as possible, so they can relax and do what they need to do,” said Laura Lattig, volunteer program coordinator for the hospital and Lower Columbia Hospice. “We really look at dying as a form of labor. It’s work — it’s hard work. And just as we labor into the world, we’re laboring out of the world.”
Since Columbia Memorial’s NODA program — which now boasts 20 volunteers — took off, 45 of the hospital’s patients have been spared a lonesome passing, Lattig said. Patients have ranged from middle age to more than 100 years old. They have died from cancer and other diseases, heart failure, diabetes and natural causes.
“Every death is different,” Dawn Young, a volunteer, said. “People just want to be accompanied, I think, a lot of times: ‘Go with me, walk me, stay with me until I get there.”
Lattig launched the No One Dies Alone program at Columbia Memorial Hospital, shortly after joining the staff, when a patient — a dying woman in her 30s without family or friends — was admitted to the hospital.
“That just struck me to the core,” Lattig said.
Lattig did some research on end-of-life care programs and discovered NODA through Sacred Heart Medical Center in Eugene (a staff member there founded the program in 2001).
Using Sacred Heart’s materials, Lattig gathered some volunteers for an early morning training. They were interrupted by a hospitalist, who informed them that a patient, a man in his 80s, was dying alone. So the new NODA team began their first vigil on their first day. “That’s how we got started,” Lattig said.
Volunteers — who may pull shifts lasting several hours, often before or after their day jobs — usually meet with patients who are “actively dying,” the terminal cases who have stopped eating and drinking, and are otherwise physically expiring.
The longest vigil lasted more than a week. “She wasn’t ready to go,” Young said.
Sometimes volunteers step in when a devoted relative needs a break from the bedside. “We try to care for the caregiver. That’s part of our job,” Lattig said.
But, if the patient is totally alone, “then we pretty much go around the clock with them,” Young said.
That is, unless the patient has indicated that he or she would actually prefer to die alone — a scenario not unheard of when a dying person wants to either spend their last moments in private or spare their loved ones from having to see them.
What’s critical, Lattig said, is for volunteers to enter the room with a compassionate heart. “That’s a requirement,” she said. “That’s something you can’t teach.”
For Young, the biggest challenge is comforting patients, especially middle-aged patients with children, who are dying not in physical pain but in emotional or spiritual pain — regretful, unhappy and unable to go gentle into that good night.
“If I see someone suffering, then I would want to try to help them over that hurdle,” she said.
Young, who also volunteers at Clatsop Care Center, recently returned from southwest England, where she trained to become a “soul midwife,” someone who ushers someone out of the world rather than into it.
Her experience has taught her that people should work to mend their fractured relationships before time runs out — before a broken heart becomes a permanent condition.
“Those types of things can eat at people for, possibly, the rest of their lives,” Young said. “Keep your relationships current. If I had anything to teach anybody, it would be: Forgive, ask for forgiveness, say, ‘I’m sorry.’ Don’t leave it to the end to try to make up.”
End-of-life care, she said, isn’t for everyone, but it’s her work, the thing she believes she was meant to do. And the reward, she and Lattig said, comes when volunteers connect with patients, when they help the patients feel safe, supported and loved — even if that means just turning on an electric star candle at night, or laying a homemade quilt over them.
“Knowing someone in the most intimate time of their life, and being able to share that with them — and maybe even give them some simple comfort — to me, that’s just an amazing gift that I’ve been given, to do the work,” Lattig said. “It’s incredible.”
To become a No One Dies Alone volunteer, contact Lattig at 503-791-7408.