58: The Vigil

58: The Vigil

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

The Vigil

To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven. A time to be born and a time to die…

~Ecclesiastes 3:1

She lay in the hospital bed, head to one side, staring toward the dark window with unblinking eyes. Her chest heaved with every breath. The death rattle gurgled in her throat.

I knew her name but nothing more.

She looked very old.

A wedding band encircled her ring finger. Was her husband still living, or had he passed on and now waited for her to join him?

Her hand twitched, then became still.

I studied the frail form under the bedcovers. In my mind’s eye I saw a little girl wearing black patent-leather shoes and white ankle socks trimmed in lace. She giggled and twirled in her Sunday-best dress, which was gathered at the waist and buttoned down the back.

Did she make chocolate chip cookies with her mommy and lick the bowl clean? Did her grandmothers shower her with hugs and kisses?

How quickly life passes by.

Did she become a mother? Was she blessed with grandchildren to love? I would never know. Our lives only intersected during my two-hour watch in the wee hours that morning.

I was on a vigil for No One Dies Alone. I’m a NODA volunteer, one of over forty such volunteers at our local hospital.

I became interested in the program while listening to a talk given by our hospital’s volunteer coordinator. In her talk, the coordinator explained why an ICU nurse began NODA.

This nurse, while checking on her critical care patients at the Sacred Heart Medical Center in Eugene, Oregon, prepared to leave the room of an elderly man. In a weak voice he begged her to stay with him.

Although her heart filled with compassion for the gentleman, she had to continue her rounds. However, she promised to come back as soon as she could. But when she returned to the man’s room, he had already passed on… alone.

This story about the elderly man deeply affected me. I decided to take the training and become one of our hospital’s NODA volunteers.

The call for a NODA vigil comes when a patient appears to have less than seventy-two hours to live and family members are unavailable.

Upon entering the patient’s room, I introduce myself, whether or not the person is responsive. During my two-hour shift I read poems, play calming CDs, hold the patient’s hand, sit quietly by the bedside, or do whatever seems to console the person. I’m there only as a comforting presence.

Every NODA vigil is different. On one occasion I entered the hospital room to find two family members sitting around the gentleman’s bed. Had a mistake been made? Why was I here? Our NODA training instructs us to leave the patient’s room when family arrives.

After introducing myself to the women, I turned to leave. “I’ll be down the hall in the little lounge area if you need me.”

The older of the two ladies shook her head. “Oh no, please stay. We want your company.” She introduced herself as the gentleman’s wife and then gestured toward the other, younger lady. “This is his daughter.”

I listened as they reminisced about the man’s fondness for trucks and his love for the grandkids. They talked about their pleasant memories of him as a husband and father. All the while the man’s breathing grew shallower, with longer gaps between breaths.

My two-hour vigil ended. The ladies hugged me goodbye when the next NODA volunteer arrived. As I prepared to leave the room, I noticed the man’s breathing had stopped and he lay very still. The daughter had noticed it, too. She bent over her father and placed a hand on his chest.

He was gone.

Sitting with patients who have only a short time to live has made me face my own mortality. Although I have a strong faith, death itself is an unknown. Stepping into any unknown is always a bit scary. I don’t want to pass from this life into the next without someone by my side, nor do I want anyone else to begin that journey while alone.

Being a NODA volunteer is bittersweet. I cannot stop anyone’s final farewell. However, there is a deep satisfaction in simply being a comforting presence to a patient. Most important, on a NODA vigil, no one will pass from this life into the next all alone.

~Kathie Mitchell

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