A Soothing Presence In Life’s Final Moments

If a group of employees has their way, no one will ever die alone in NorthBay Healthcare hospitals. Currently 22 employees, whose jobs range from nursing to finance, are volunteers in the No One Dies Alone (NODA)program. They are dedicated to sitting with terminal patients who are alone or who have no one close by to support them.

It was a heartbreaking case that led two NorthBay managers to think how valuable a volunteer program could be in such situations. A mother with young children was dying of cancer. Her support system—her mother—had to care for the patient’s children, so she couldn’t visit often.

“The patient was alone and afraid and she just needed someone to talk to,” remembered Shelley Johnson, R.N., director of critical care services. “While we did as much as we could for her, we just couldn’t sit and hold her hand for extended periods of time.”

After months of research, Shelley and Patty Kramer, the now retired director of Supportive Care Services, launched NODA in 2013. The program was founded in 2001 by Sandra Clarke at Peace Health in the Pacific Northwest. In an effort to reverse the loneliness that can occur during the final stages of life, NorthBay Healthcare adopted the same concept to provide the gift of compassion, respect and dignity to patients who are alone.

Volunteers attend a training workshop and then share their personal time with terminal patients as they are needed. No nursing skills are necessary to provide companionship, just a desire to bring comfort.

No nursing skills are necessary to provide companionship, just a desire to bring comfort.

It is the patient’s nurse who requests help from NODA. Odessa Lopez, administrative support specialist in hospital administration, coordinates the program. When she receives a request, she sends an email to the volunteers. They compare schedules and make a plan for coverage.

“I’m not emotionally ready to sit with a patient, but I wanted to help this program,” said Odessa of her role. “Volunteers offer what time they can; some sit for an hour, some for several hours. I try to ensure the patient isn’t left alone.”

Darcy Ramer, a computer systems analyst who troubleshoots the organization’s medical management system, has been a volunteer since the program started. She began her 24-year-career at NorthBay working in the NorthBay Cancer Center.

“It was my experience in the Cancer Center that prompted me to volunteer,” Darcy said. “I wouldn’t want to die alone and I didn’t like thinking of someone else dying alone if I could help them.”

She explained that some patients had family members, but often they worked and couldn’t be with their loved one constantly.

“I sat with one woman whose son worked and it was very important to him that she not be alone. He was so thankful that we could be with her.”

Darcy’s first experience was with a patient who had an infection that required staff to take “universal precautions” when inside his room. This meant she wore protective clothing, including a mask and gloves, when she sat with him.

For Liz Zoller, an administrative support specialist at VacaValley Hospital, becoming a volunteer was personal. “A close friend of mine died of breast cancer at age 43 and I was there for her,” she said. “We had a girls’ club and we took turns caring for her,” Liz explained. “We were with her when she died and it was a beautiful experience.”

When NODA was launched, Liz was ready to volunteer. The first patient embraced by the program was a 60-year-old man who was in the hospital alone and near death.

“The program’s leader, Patty Kramer, was the first to visit the gentleman,” Liz remembered. “When I came to relieve her she told me to talk to him and let him know that I was there.”

Patty explained that she could see on his heart monitor that his heart rate slowed when he heard her and knew he wasn’t alone. “He was very peaceful, and I remember looking at him and thinking he could be my brother or my son,” she said. “I believe in touch, even when you have to wear gloves, so I held his hand, spoke to him and hummed some music. I learned that he had died a week later.

“My second patient was a man in the ICU. His daughter lived out of state and didn’t want him to be alone. When I arrived for my volunteer shift after work, his nurse, Starr Collet, R.N., told me that death was close. We both sat with him as his condition deteriorated and to my surprise he passed away quite quickly. Starr explained that every death was different—and some are more active than others. Although he was at peace, I was quite shaken up afterward. When you experience a death, you don’t know how you’ll feel. But I was so glad that we could report back to his daughter that her father didn’t die alone.”

The volunteers get together for a debriefing following a patient’s death. It’s a chance to provide each other with support and consolation and share what they’ve learned from the experience.

“NODA is not offered in most hospitals,” Liz added. “We’re very fortunate to have this volunteer program at our hospitals. We’re people of service, that’s what we do.”

If you have questions about NODA, contact Yolanda Bonomo, manager of Social Services and overseer of the program at (707) 646-4261.

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