After these first few months volunteering in the hospital, and now in the hospice, I am starting to come away with impressions. Things that stay with me, things I find myself thinking about offsite, things I am trying to learn how to digest.
The most important one is connection.
When you’re vulnerable like this, in the hospital or dying, things get pared down to the absolute essentials. Bodily functions, simple things. I got a good night’s sleep. A dish of ice cream.
The people whose suffering haunts me the most are those who don’t have anyone there for them. They are alone, navigating a system full of strangers, at a time in their lives when they are at their most vulnerable. Their suffering is amplified because of this.
The elderly lady in the hospital following some sort of emergency, anxious why her son had not yet come. She was panicked, frightened, alone. She needed her slippers! It was four o’clock. At home she would have a cup of tea, with a little sugar! I took his phone number and double-checked with the nursing station that he had been called. I got her a cup of tea with a little sugar.
The guy whose leg was being ravaged by flesh-eating bacteria, in the hospital for weeks, no friends or family coming to visit him because they’re part of a world he has left behind. I’ve been clean for a year, he tells me. I listen as he tells me how he thinks the nurses are singling him out for punishment because he complained about not having Internet access. I wonder how much is real and how much is the paranoia born of a damaged mind. I do know that it would be so easy for a family member or friend to bring him a kindle or, more importantly, some company to help ease the mind-numbing boredom and ever-present pain. I am a poor substitute for someone who knows him well. He thanks me for my patience and asks me to marry him.
The hospice is easier than the hospital; here patients have access to the internet, televisions in private rooms, they have brought blankets, slippers, things from home. But even so, the thing that matters most to every single one of these people is connection. The highlight of their day is always, without exception, who has come to visit them that day. And that’s why being a volunteer is so great. You can be that person, and even if it’s not the same as a friend or family member, it’s way better than nothing. You can make a connection, hear their stories, make sure they know their life matters.
Let’s all do this for each other now, every single day. Connect with people. Be there when they need you. Make sure you tell them that they matter.