Lying in a Southampton Hospital bed as her body was slowly shutting down and her life was nearing its end, the elderly woman was unresponsive—but not alone.
No family or friends were near, but there was a comforting human presence. Shining at her bedside was the soft glow of a vanilla-scented battery-operated candle. Light classical music gently flowed from an iPod hooked up to a speaker.
Sitting next to her and setting this serene mood was a volunteer, Heidi Varucene, one of 18 “compassionate companions” who have been trained by the hospital as part of a national “No One Dies Alone” program it adopted this year to support patients in their final hours.
“I feel like we owe it to each other in society to be there for each other,” Ms. Varucene explained during an interview at the hospital on Monday morning. “This is probably the most important time to be there with somebody.”
The program trains volunteers to offer a soothing bedside presence for the dying.
Nursing experience is not necessary for volunteers in “No One Dies Alone,” or NODA for short, but certain qualities are preferred, said Patricia Darcey, chief nursing officer at Southampton Hospital and vice president of patient services. Those who are calm, empathetic and can put patients’ needs ahead of their own make good compassionate companions, she said. Also, having already witnessed death is another valued quality.
To date, Southampton Hospital said that five patients have had the companionship of one of these volunteers, and three of them have died with a companion at bedside.
“We are all human, and life starts at birth and it goes through to our last breath,” explained Ms. Darcey. “Death is a part of life, and so often people have difficulty with that. Sometimes their needs supersede the needs of the individual who is dying. So this gives that individual the companionship, the love, the human touch until they are passing. They can feel there is another human with them.”
Ms. Darcey said she first heard about NODA through a nurse friend in Florida and, after hearing more about it at a conference last September, thought it would be good to implement at Southampton.
From time to time, she said, the hospital has dying patients who are the last surviving members of their families, or whose relatives live far away or simply need a respite.
“We don’t have a crystal ball,” Ms. Darcey noted, but, generally, within the last 48 to 72 hours of life, the hospital will ensure a dying patient has a private room. Now, with NODA, the hospital looks to provide more comfort for the dying.
The hospital selected 18 volunteers from a pool of 20 interested candidates, Ms. Darcey said. All are female, and many also work in the hospital.
They underwent a two-day education program. Tips included offering an ear to listen but not getting a glass of water for a thirsty patient (that is a nurse’s job), holding hands but not offering massages, and exiting the room if one becomes emotionally overwhelmed.
They then signed up for four-hour shifts, depending on their availability. A hospital goal is eventually to be able to provide NODA comfort 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The hospital had its first patient toward the end of March or beginning of April, a mentally challenged man in his 50s who had no relatives at all. (The hospital does not name the patients because of federal privacy laws.) Most of the patients have been in their 70s or 80s.
Ms. Varucene, 49, of Water Mill, who also works in administration at the hospital, said she has sat bedside with her patient twice.
“It’s neat that you can establish a rapport with someone who’s, number one, unresponsive, and, number two, alone, and just be there for them,” she said. “It’s just a huge honor.”
She explained her routine. After starting with a silent but reassuring presence, she eventually made use of all the items that the hospital provides in a bag for the volunteers. In addition to turning on the candle and playing the music, she read Catholic passages to the patient, a Catholic.
The bag also includes a rosary and a variety of reading material, religious and secular. Some titles include “Book of Comfort and Healing: Prayers and Inspiration From Many Faiths,” “Handbook for Chaplains: Comfort My People,” “Prayer For A Peaceful Death,” and “Hebrew Prayer During Illness.”
Dying is individualized, noted Jane Edelman, clinical coordinator of palliative care at Southampton, but sound—music, or the reading of poetry or scripture—often provides one final connection. “Most of the time, I would say that patients seem like they’re sleeping, but they do hear what’s going on around them. That is the last sense that’s lost when someone’s passing.”
The hospital anticipates training more volunteers in the fall. Those interested in being screened may contact Gerry Minerva, director of volunteer services, at 726-8336, or Ms. Edelman at 726-3200.
“We tell the volunteers, ‘You could be the last face on Earth that this patient sees,’” Ms. Darcey said.