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No One Alone: Palliative Care Volunteer Program Provides Companionship

January 13, 2009

Susan WeeksIn the final days of her best friend's life, cut short by breast cancer, Susan Weeks (pictured at right) was awestruck at the heroic grace with which her friend accepted her fate. "She always had a strong perception of how she was going to end her life," Weeks says. "I will always admire her for that. Because of her, I thought perhaps I could work with other people facing the same kind of challenges."

Weeks, a program coordinator in Neonatology, took the gift of that experience and became a volunteer in the No One Alone Palliative Care program at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. She and several dozen others give comfort and company to seriously ill patients throughout the hospital. The bravery of the patients she met through volunteering gave her strength when, last year, she herself was diagnosed with breast cancer. "Having that training in palliative care helped so much to get me through the last several months," she says. "Every patient, and their families and friends, were different. They were all so meaningful in so many ways."

Unlike hospice care, which focuses on keeping patients comfortable in their dying days, palliative care is available to any seriously ill patient or loved one who wants it. The No One Alone volunteer group was started by Ira Byock, MD, Program Director for DHMC's Palliative Care Service. Volunteers, he says, fill an essential role that clinicians cannot.

"It really is part of 'ensouling' our care," Byock says. "The No One Alone volunteers have made us much more than a strictly clinical service. Seriously ill patients often will spend long days, weeks, even months in the hospital feeling isolated, lonely, and bored, which contribute to the stress that people may experience during their hospitalization. Sometimes, a visit from a calm and friendly person works better than medication to address those feelings."

About 40 percent of the hospitals in the United States have palliative care programs, but there are only a handful of volunteer programs. The No One Alone program is on pace to visit and brighten the days of over 500 patients this year. Some patients will be visited for many days on end. DHMC currently has about 30 No One Alone palliative care volunteers. All have undergonemore extensive training than is common for volunteers-six sessions totaling about 20 hours. Each volunteer istypically on duty for one four-hour shift every week. They have a wide range of duties, tailored to the needs of each patient, and may include such activities as reading the newspaper, bringing music selections to the bedside, doing errands and writing letters.

The most important job of any palliative care volunteer, though, is listening-and providing the quiet companionship patients and their families need during their hospital stay. The program is not for everyone, says Palliative Care No One Alone Volunteer Program Manager Wendy Sichel, but for those who choose to volunteer, the rewards are immense. "People come to this kind of work from their heart," Sichel says. "They generally have to be the kind of people who are willing to step into the fire. I think that once people have been palliative care volunteers, they have a lot of glowing and loving stories to tell about their experiences."

For more information about the No One Alone Palliative Care Volunteer Program, call Wendy Sichel at (603) 650-5402 or email her at wendy.j.sichel@hitchcock.org.