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No One Dies Alone volunteers helping ensure alone, end-of-life patients have someone

Deanna Speer, RN, who leads Palliative Care at Ascension Via Christi, first heard about the No One Dies Alone program through the Supportive Care Coalition.

Viewing it as a natural expansion of her team's work to provide comfort care to patients living with all stages of chronic illnesses, including end of life, she along with social worker Sarah Smart began working on establishing such a program at Ascension Via Christi's Wichita hospitals.

"I already was doing it with comfort care patients because I could not stand to see them die alone," says Smart, who, along with the staff chaplains, would take time to sit with patients who had no one with them during their final moments.

The plan had been to recruit and train an on-call group of Ascension Via Christi Volunteers willing to provide that bedside presence to patients facing imminent death.

Then came COVID-19, which led to a suspension of volunteers' services and visitation restrictions, particularly in the units dedicated to caring for patients infected by the new coronavirus.

So Speer and Smart launched the program with a different group of volunteers: Associates willing to spend their personal time sitting with patients and holding their hands during their final hours.

It started in late September in the MICU-turned-COVID-19 ICU at Ascension Via Christi St. Francis, where family often cannot be at the bedside for a number of reasons including their personal health status, inability to travel or get to the hospital in time.

"The call came into the Palliative Care department over the weekend that there was no family to sit with the patient," says Smart. So Jenifer Phelps, the ICU's nurse manager, stepped in and effectively became the program's first volunteer.

Josh Swaim, Ministry Formation manager, heard about the program and quickly became its second one. 

"Accompanying those who are close to death, praying for their salvation and giving them hope and comfort has always been a part of this ministry since the time of our founding Sisters," says Swaim, who recently sat with a man who had no family, only a legal guardian who never visited. "As a culture, we are not very good about death and often try to avoid our exposure to suffering and the dying process as much as possible. But all of us are going to die and that experience of accompanying someone who is dying can be an important moment of reflection and prayer not only for the one dying, but also for the one keeping vigil."

Swaim, whose primary role is to help connect associates to Ascension's mission and values, says the program is "a unique way that I can contribute to the spiritual care of our patients and offer a ministry of presence to our associates as well."

The fledgling program now has 13 volunteers, including both clinicians and non-clinical associates and frontline staff to senior executives, who have requested to be on the call list to come and give of their time and the number of program referrals stands at seven. 

While the Wichita hospital campus, type of illness and the patient's family circumstances may vary, each has had volunteers there to hold their hand and talk with, helping them not to be afraid.

Smart, who has a background in hospice care, is currently providing individual training to associates and is working on a formal training module. She also is working closely with Susan Delling, director of Guest Services and Volunteers, on plans for including Ascension Via Christi Volunteers when they return to campus.

"That was the original idea behind this program," says Smart, who says that while she and Speer wish that the No One Dies Alone program wasn't needed, they know it is now and will continue to be in the future.

"Before COVID-19, we still had people dying alone," says Smart. "They were homeless, addicts, people who had burned a lot of bridges or whose choices in life had led to family estrangement. They also were people who never had children or siblings, whose parents were deceased or who simply have no local family or family with the ability to travel for health or financial reasons."

As for giving of yourself and personal time to provide peace to the dying, she says, adding, "There is no better way to live our mission than this." 

 

Deanna Speer, RN, with Sarah Smart, who both helped get the No One Dies Alone program up and running.

About Roz Hutchinson

Roz Hutchinson is a Wichita wife, mother and chief spoiler of six grandkids and three Chihuahuas, a die-hard women's basketball fan, and director of Communications and Public Relations for Ascension Via Christi.