82: The 11th Hour

82: The 11th Hour

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

The 11th Hour

Accept the things to which fate binds you and love the people with whom fate brings you together, and do so with all your heart.

~Marcus Aurelius

I am a “patient volunteer” for a local hospice organization. Once a week I go to a hospice patient’s home and offer something called Comfort Touch to the patient and/or the occasional family member. It’s a mix of massage and acupressure techniques for shoulders, hands and feet. It’s relaxing and offers a bit of physical touch to people who are near the end of their lives and don’t get touched much anymore except for medical procedures.

A second hospice program I’ve joined is called “11th Hour.” This is a relatively new program that only recently became an official one for which you receive volunteer training. I’m sure that it’s been around for as long as hospice itself has, it just didn’t have a name or formal structure. 11th Hour volunteers sit with someone during the last hours of his or her life. Medical staff may know a person is about to die, but they can’t say exactly when. It might be in a few hours, it might be a few days. The volunteer is there so the patient doesn’t have to die alone.

Even in nursing homes and hospitals with 24/7 staff, the dying patient doesn’t always have someone right there with them. Families get tired and need to go home to rest. And it’s not just the wee hours of the night; a morning or afternoon can be as lonely as any other time. Some hospice patients literally have no one: no family, no friends, and no caring human support left in their lives. I feel this time of imminent transition is a very sacred time. There is something special about it—holy even. With hospice care, the person is kept comfortable on every level. The hospice I volunteer for even takes in people who have no ability to pay.

A few days ago, I had such a patient. He had no children, no spouse, no relatives, no friends. He had gone to college. He had served in Vietnam. But he was in the last stages of acute alcoholism. He had come from a jail where he was serving time for DUI. The staff at the care center had asked for companion volunteers to be with him.

I walked into the quiet, pleasant room and stood for a minute next to the man’s bedside. He was very thin. “Hi, my name is Chris,” I said. “I’ll be sitting here for a while to keep you company.”

We volunteers introduce ourselves regardless of the condition of the patient. Hearing is the last sense to go, we are told. He was still except for his deep and regular breaths. His bed was spotless, his hair combed, the sheet pulled up and folded across his chest. I pulled the chair close to his bed so I could be near him. I put my hand on his arm and left it there, patting him every once in a while. Then I sat back and was left to my own thoughts.

My father-in-law had died of alcoholism, too. It’s an insidious disease. It rips lives apart and wounds family members in ways that don’t always show physically. I’ve known lots of people, in my family and others, who have struggled with addiction. The miracle is that anyone ever gets into recovery at all, and that millions of people have been able to pick their lives up and begin again.

I felt I understood this man a bit, as I watched him breathe, his skin stretched across the bones of his face, his mouth open against the pillowcase. What a contrast this place was versus where he had come from! The smell of freshly baked cookies wafted through the partially open door to his room. Caring and gentle staff came to check on him periodically. His pajamas were clean, his limbs arranged comfortably on the bed, under the sheet.

It was getting to be the end of my shift. I put my hand on the patient’s arm. I mentally thanked him for his existence and his struggle. I hoped that at some point along the way he had known love and that his heart had known peace. I felt so grateful for the thoughts he had stirred in me, just by lying there in his hospital bed and breathing. “Thank you for letting me spend this time with you,” I said out loud. “I am leaving now. Goodbye.”

I hoped another person would come soon and fill that chair by his bedside. There was a blessing I was sure that, just like me, they needed to receive.

~Christine Cosse Gray

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