When Abigail H. admitted her mother into Providence St. Peter Hospital, she made a promise that she would not leave her alone. Her mother had become very ill and was afraid she’d die alone.
After staying with her for 10 days without leaving, Abigail, who asked that her last name not be used, learned of the No One Dies Alone program.
The program has been in Olympia since 2012, and started up at Providence Centralia in February 2015.
The volunteer-powered program provides companionship for people who are dying and would otherwise be alone. Sometimes, that’s in the form of a vigil, where a person is truly alone with no family or friends, while other times it’s for relief service when a family member cannot be there 24 hours a day.
Abigail, who was exhausted and needed to tend to her dogs at home, was at first hesitant to leave her mother with someone, but knew she had to so she could be there for her later.
“I needed a break from the extreme stress I was experiencing,” she said. “I actually felt like I was on a bad cruise ship and I couldn’t find a plane to exit the ship. Emotionally, I was afraid that I would break and that I wouldn’t be there for my mom.”
At this point, her mom was non-responsive. A program volunteer from the NODA program came in and promised Abigail she would sit with her mom. Abigail returned a short two hours later.
“When I came back, the lights were dim. She was holding my mom’s hand and she was talking with her,” she said. “I broke into tears at the compassion that this person had to sit with a stranger and her ability to share what I saw was unconditional love to hold me over. It truly was the greatest gift I had ever received.”
Abigail utilized the No One Dies Alone program a few more times while her mother stayed in the hospital. She would go home and gather up the strength to come back to honor the promise she made to her mom, she said.
“I will never forget the selflessness that these people shared,” she said. “They gave their time and came when I was at my most vulnerable moment. I just can’t say enough about this program.”
No One Dies Alone is a national program that originally began in Oregon when a nurse had a patient who was dying. The man asked her to stay with him, but she was unable to since she had other responsibilities. The incident was spiritually distressing, so she decided to do something about it. That’s when she recruited staff members at the hospital to create a network of support for those who may not otherwise have anyone. The program later grew to include volunteers.
In the Southwest Washington region of Providence, the program is available at the hospital in Centralia as well as the Providence St. Peter Hospital and Mother Joseph Care Center, both in Olympia.
Program coordinator Eliana Stockwell-Ferber said there is a 50-50 split of staff and community volunteers who donate their time. At the three facilities, there are just over 100 volunteers, with only 13 at the Centralia hospital.
Staff members at the hospitals who know about NODA can activate the program when they know of a patient who is within 24 hours of death and is alone, or if their family members need some relief. Sometimes the patient will request for someone to stay with them, and they can take part in the program that way.
“I think a big part of this program for a lot of our volunteers is sort of that getting out of the doing mode, and getting more in the being mode,” Stockwell-Ferber said. “So really our goal is mostly just companioning that person, holding the space for them and protecting the space.”
For some of the patients, that might mean holding their hand, reading to them or adjusting their pillow to ensure they are comfortable in their last hours.
“We really try to make the focus on just being there and being a loving presence in the room,” Stockwell-Ferber said.
For volunteer Lisa Prazak, who is a speech language pathologist, the program allows her to see a different side of caregiving.
“It’s very different for me because I’ll be in a clinical setting during the day working with a patient therapy-wise, and I just take on a totally different role,” she said. “I think it’s a really unique opportunity you can’t get anywhere else. You are on the front lines connecting with somebody. You could do it once and maybe never want to do it again, but I think it would really probably end up changing your life, I mean honestly.”
Volunteer Susan Lamoreaux said the program is not only rewarding, but it has taught her a lot about the dying process.
“I knew that the program would fit me well,” she said. “When you sit for a vigil, you aren’t talking and you just need to be present instead and practice mindfulness, be aware and be a protector because that’s also what you are doing, is you are protecting that space for an individual who is working at leaving.”
The program’s ultimate goal is to ensure no one dies alone at any of the Providence’s locations who utilize NODA.
In 2016, over 5,330 volunteer hours were utilized. Volunteers sat with 83 patients, with the busiest month in May 2016, where 610 volunteer hours were used. The least busy month was March 2016, where there were only 157 volunteer hours.
Volunteers in the program are able to give as much or as little time as they want. They typically sit with a patient for four hours at a time, after going through an orientation and training program.
“Our volunteers are mind blowingly amazing,” Stockwell-Ferber said. “Our folks are not only willing to sit with our patients, but are clearly honored to sit with our patients. It’s pretty neat the culture of gratitude that our volunteers have.”
Abigail had been taking care of her mother for two years prior to admitting her into the hospital. Her mother had suffered a stroke and couldn’t be alone. Abigail ultimately took her mother home where she died 28 hours later, with her daughter by her side.
The constant companionship, in part through the NODA program, is something Abigail said she is sure helped comfort her mother.
“I think she was relieved because I truly believe that even if someone is unresponsive, they can still hear whoever is in the room,” she said. “I think my mother understood fully that I had to go home and take care of things at home, but I think she was probably really relieved she wasn’t there by herself.”
She said she absolutely recommends the NODA program to others.
“It’s such a relief to the family member, but also to the person who is lying there in bed so they are not alone. I don’t think anyone should be alone when they are passing,” Abigail said.
Once she gets through her period of grief, Abigail hopes to volunteer with the program to help others in similar situations. She said the process will be one of the most rewarding things she could do.
“I have been there,” Abigail said. “I know what these people are feeling and I know what a relief it is to get that little bit of rest and go with the comfort of knowing that someone was taking my place sitting beside that bed.”