70: Kindness Matters

70: Kindness Matters

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

Kindness Matters

Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.

~Leo Buscaglia

Volunteers always seem to step up to do the hardest jobs, and it’s hard to imagine a more difficult job than sitting at the bedside of a suicidal patient. But that’s exactly what folks do at a rural medical center in northwest Colorado.

For five years I worked as a tech in the emergency room in a small, friendly regional hospital that serves thousands of people in rural northwest Colorado. For some reason, which researchers still don’t understand, the Rocky Mountains have the highest rate of suicide in the country. Those living in the region — which stretches from Montana through New Mexico and includes over one hundred ranges — suffer more acutely from depression that leads to suicide than any place in the country. I had my own untested theory about such sadness in places of immense beauty. Maybe people came to the mountains to “be happy” and found that sadness followed. Maybe living at a high altitude really affects the brain in ways we don’t understand. Or maybe the culture of the West — guns and independence — fosters feelings of inadequacy. Whatever it was, when I saw suicidal patients my heart would break.

Depression runs in my family. There is a history of men in my family suffering from a darkness that seems insurmountable. I had too much experience with very sad and depressed people in my life, and so when a patient arrived mired in hopelessness it triggered the same in me.

Statistics suggest that seventy-five percent of people who commit suicide seek help from a healthcare provider within the two weeks prior to the act. This means doctors’ offices and emergency rooms are often the last places a deeply depressed person will call for help. Yet our system seems unable to either diagnose or treat this illness well. The protocol in many ERs for suicidal patients is as follows:

(1) Make them safe: clear out the room completely; patients have been known to try to kill themselves in hospitals with anything around, from monitor cords to rubber gloves.

(2) If appropriate, medicate them. This is very often the case.

(3) Call a social service designated to screen these patients for placement, though often there is no place to put them.

(4) Isolate them with a “one-on-one” hospital employee responsible for keeping eyes on their patients at all times. Often this is a security guard who is generally not supposed to talk to the patient.

Isolated, medicated, left alone with a stranger. Wow. What could be worse for someone in the throes of such deep suffering?

Our town actually had the dubious distinction of the highest per capita suicide rate in Colorado, and we had a strong advocate who was devoting herself to the cause. Rhonda had lost her own son to suicide when he was in his thirties, and she decided that she would do everything in her power to prevent suicide in our community. She hosted a mental health outreach event I attended and we connected. It seems Rhonda had been trying to find “a way in” to the emergency room system, knowing how many people ended up there. I was her way in.

We collaborated to design a simple and effective program for our small emergency room: a cadre of well-trained volunteers, available 24/7 to come to the ER and be the “hospital sitters.” These were the people designated to “watch” the patient, only they could do more than stare. They would accompany the patient on his or her journey in a way no one else might be able: listening deeply, talking, sharing and providing resources. The volunteer was there to do everything possible to make sure the patient wouldn’t leave the ER and kill himself or herself within the next two weeks, as the dire statistics indicated.

Rhonda and I set about making a plan. She was certified to train volunteers in this kind of crisis management and, in fact, her group consisted mostly of people who had themselves been suicidal or had suffered a loss or “near miss” by suicide. Each of the volunteers had a personal story, so each one knew exactly what a patient could feel (or not feel) when in such a desperate condition. Too often we create an unspoken patronizing distance between those we “help” and ourselves, as if the former are somehow the less fortunate and therefore more needy. There would be no such hierarchy in this program, as these volunteers understood suicide way too well, from the inside out. They would walk with the patient, side by side.

As Rhonda prepared the volunteer corps, I went through all the appropriate channels at the hospital to get the program up and running. Health care is perhaps the most complicated, problematic system in this country. Though generally highly regulated and convoluted, my hospital was small enough — and caring enough — to support the program in a way that made it easy in comparison to huge hospitals with complex processes.

It took time and effort, a committee, policies, procedures and training, but we did it. Starting with a roster of about ten trained volunteers, we created an on-call schedule for 24/7 ER coverage. We then rolled the program out to the staff, who were frankly surprised and confused, as if they were thinking, “You’re providing us with a volunteer to help these patients?” It was so unusual that at first they didn’t use the service, unable to truly comprehend the kindness of people at this depth. But once they got the hang of it, they started calling the volunteer as soon as the suicidal patient came to triage. We called ourselves Suicide Prevention Advocates (SPAs) and it was music to my ears when I was working the desk to hear a doctor or nurse say, “Call the SPA volunteer.”

Generally within twenty to thirty minutes of a call from the ER, a volunteer would arrive and — having been trained in ER protocol — communicate with the nurse, go to the patient’s bedside and generally say something like “My name is Jean and I’m a hospital volunteer, here to be with you as long as you need me.” They would often help make a plan for the patient’s discharge to a safe environment. Because the patients talked plenty to the volunteers, they were able to provide valuable information to the staff, and when the patient left, the volunteer would give him or her or the family a packet of resources. If the patient signed a release, the volunteer or Rhonda would follow up with a phone call or whatever was necessary within the next twenty-four to forty-eight hours.

I don’t know the actual stats, but I can tell you the program was successful in amazing ways. I know our intervention helped desperate people to connect. Can you imagine a more fulfilling volunteer “job” than helping someone stay alive just by being present and available and kind? I moved from Colorado last year, but I’m so happy I was able to leave my mark in a way that will continue to help hopeless people reaching out for help. True kindness saves lives.

~Phyllis Coletta

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