There is life and death and the in-between.
It is the in-between where hospital volunteers such as Edie Bennett and
David Wynn make sure that no one dies alone.
Over nearly a decade of volunteering at St. Joseph Hospital of Orange,
Bennett and Wynn have comforted people going gently into the night, endured
sepsis many would run away from, even witnessed people crossing death’s
door and suddenly reviving.
But perhaps there is nothing Bennett and Wynn say that is more comforting
than hearing when someone is unresponsive humans connect on far deeper
levels than you might expect.
It has to do with love. But sometimes it also has to do with jazz.
MOVEMENT OF LOVE
Family and friends gathering with someone near death is as old as humanity.
But in the modern world, there is a raft of reasons dying patients face
Some have families too far away to arrive in time, some are homeless and
without support, others are estranged from loved ones, some simply outlive
everyone they know.
The No One Dies Alone movement traces its roots to a rainy Oregon night in 1986.
Sandra Clarke, a nurse at Sacred Heart Medical Center in Eugene, tended
to an elderly dying man who asked, “Would you stay with me?’
Clarke was especially busy with six patients, according to reports, and
promised she would soon be back. But by the time she returned, the man
had passed on.
For years, the incident haunted Clarke. Eventually, she discussed with
staff her idea of volunteers staying with dying patients. PeaceHealth,
the corporate organization of Sacred Heart Medical Center, approved her
vision and in 2001 No One Dies Alone was born.
Today, an estimated 200 hospitals are involved.
Wynn first thought about dying alone when he and his family happened to
be in Las Vegas and a family member died while they were there. Later,
he heard about No One Dies Alone through a hospital newsletter after being
treated for a condition that nearly killed him. He recalled dark, sometimes
scary nights when staff held his hand and comforted his worries away.
“It was like I got hit on the head with a board.
“I don’t want to sound like ‘St. Dave,’ but I wanted
to do something that made a difference.”
Busy with family, camping, skiing and a demanding job as an AT&T senior
project manager, Wynn offered to volunteer. Soon, he was coaxed into coordinating
That was nearly a decade ago.
St. Joe’s, as the hospital is affectionately known, averages one
dying alone incident a month. That may not sound like much, but keep in
mind that death is unpredictable. Some people pass within a few hours,
others linger for weeks -- and some walk away.
Wynn recalls a woman dying one New Year’s Eve. On his way home from
a ski trip with his wife, he agreed to answer the call thinking he would
be home from the hospital before midnight.
But midnight stretched to 1 a.m., then 2 a.m., then 3 a.m. Dozing in a
chair, Wynn woke to daylight and the woman sat bolt upright in bed asking,
“Who are you?”
Wynn stammered he was simply there to keep her company.
Soon, the woman returned to her nursing home.
When a call goes out, an army of some 45 volunteers split into four-hour,
Wynn recalls his first patient, a woman in isolation dying of cancer. When
he opened her door, the odor nearly knocked him over. He gathered himself,
sat down, took a glove off and touched the woman’s arm to assure
her that she was not alone.
“It’s not always pleasant. Sitting there for hours with a gown
and mask on can be difficult,” Wynn, a 61-year-old Anaheim Hills
resident, allows, “but every human being deserves to die with dignity.
“I think touch is very important.”
As Wynn talks, I think of my father holding my mother’s hand and
caressing her arm just before Thanksgiving as she lay in a coma. As her
heartbeat slowed, I too held her hand and gently kissed her forehead.
But I wondered whether we do these things to sooth our souls or for the
souls of others.
Wynn is convinced communication -- both sound and kinetic -- goes back
and forth regardless of the patient’s responsiveness.
“When I was non-responsive,” he says of his time as a patient,
“I could still think, I was still aware.”
Volunteers talk, watch TV, listen to music with patients. “Each case,”
Wynn explains, “takes on a life of their own. There’s a connection.”
Wynn learned one of his patients was a musician so Wynn played classical
music. But the patient grew restless so Wynn turned off the music. Later,
he learned the man was a jazz musician and Wynn played something off a
1959 Miles Davis album called “Kind of Blue.”
The patient’s lips crinkled into a slight smile.
When Bennett learned her father was in the hospital in Arizona, the retired
lobbyist drove eight straight hours. But she just missed being there when
dad was still alive.
The event prompted the 68-year-old Orange resident to volunteer. “You’re
sharing the last stage of life’s journey,” Bennett offers.
“For me there’s no more sacred an encounter.”
Both Bennett and Wynn remember every patient as if it were yesterday. One
was a 26-year-old woman with a long-term disease Bennett had met at St.
Joe's the year before. Back then, the woman had a tattered stuffed
animal. Bennett brought a playmate, a furry toy.
“She was sipping from a straw,” Bennett recalls, “lime
Jell-O. I stroked her hair. She could have been my daughter.”
Bennett looked at the young woman and promised, “You will always
be my angel.”
“Thank you,” the young woman said before slipping away.
“I still think of her,” Bennett allows, “and that was
almost two years ago.”
Then there was the time when Bennett was with a dying woman gasping for
air. Her breathing slowed to six breaths a minute. Soon, it was so quiet
it appeared she was about to take her final breath.
Suddenly, the patient muttered something. Bennett couldn’t make it
out. Another sound, “water.”
Within an hour, the patient sang, “Water, water.” Then she
ate chocolate pudding. Soon, she was discharged.
“It’s rare,” Bennett says, “but it does happen.”
The mystery of the in-between.
(By David Whiting, Columnist)
(Photo by Sam Gangwer, The Orange County Register/SCNG)