It’s in Her Heart – No One Dies Alone

A retired nurse practitioner at IU Health Ball Memorial experienced firsthand the loneliness of death. Now, she is on a mission to bring around-the-clock compassion in the final hours.

It was the day after Christmas years ago, and Susan Magrath visited the room of a patient in palliative care. He was comfortable but he was alone in his room.

“I remember a staff member had brought him a handmade quilt and I thought that was so beautiful. It brought so much warmth, but he was still alone,” said Magrath, a nurse who retired last February from IU Health Ball Memorial. Every year she attended a daylong conference sponsored by the RESPECT Center at IUPUI – Research in Palliative and End-of-Life Communication and Training. The program focuses on bringing researchers and clinicians together to provide the best care to patients across their lifespan. It was at one of the sessions where she first learned of the program “No One Dies Alone” (NODA).

“End-of-life issues are in my heart. It’s my passion and it’s something that we need to understand and care about,” said Magrath. So after a little research, she began working with Sandra Hoover, director of volunteer services to implement NODA at IU Health Ball Memorial. The national volunteer program started in 2001 in Eugene, Ore. with a goal of providing bedside companionship during the last 48 hours of life.

“Sometimes I’d be finishing up my shift and I’d just sit with someone,” said Magrath. “It’s something a lot of nurses do. Most patients aren’t communicating at the end but just because their eyes are closed and they are silent doesn’t mean they aren’t aware or can’t hear.”

Before Magrath retired she made a commitment – to stay on staff as a volunteer with a focus on coordinating the NODA program. More than 400 health organizations across the country take part in NODA – geared toward patients who otherwise have no family members or close friends to accompany them near their end of life journey.

To jumpstart the program, Magrath and Hoover recently presented two informational sessions to interested volunteers. More than 30 people have expressed interest in volunteering for the program. Their goal is to have the program up and running by Valentine’s Day. The program is also under consideration at other IU Health facilities including Arnett and Bloomington.

“I’m overwhelmed by the number of people interested in volunteering,” said Hoover. “The volunteers are the heart of the program. It’s our hope that a year from now the program will be well promoted, well utilized and has a dedicated group of individuals who share the same passion Susan does in starting this program.

Like all hospital volunteers, participants must be 19 years or older, complete an online application and an orientation program, and meet various health requirements including TB testing, and a flu vaccination. Background screenings are required along with an updated immunization history. NODA volunteers, known as “Compassionate Companions” are encouraged to have cell phones so they can easily be contacted at various hours to take part in 48-hour vigils, working in two-three hour increments.

“Essentially they will be there to respond to the patient’s needs,” said Magrath. “That could mean holding their hand, reading, singing, praying, or communicating with their caregivers.” The number of patients who die alone is a statistic that isn’t generally recorded by hospitals, said Magrath.

“I have been saddened in the dim dark room of a patient alone with no family,” said Magrath. “I believe this is in line with our core values at IU Health – to give respect to patients in all aspects of their lives, to provide them with a dignified death.” 

— By T.J. Banes, Journalist, IU Health.
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