Volunteers sit with patients during final hours

Through a new volunteer program at IU Health Ball Memorial, volunteers serve as “compassionate companions” for patients who are alone.

That one look in his eyes was all the affirmation Tish Wright needed.

“I think that one moment confirmed I was doing the right thing,” said Wright, one of more than two dozen volunteers taking part in a new program at IU Health Ball Memorial Hospital. The program called “No One Dies Alone,” (NODA) provides a bedside vigil for patients who lack family support. Volunteers received special training before the program was implemented at the first of the year.

Wright was one of seven volunteers who took part in the first 20-hour vigil. Each volunteer remained with the patient for three hours. The program is set up to provide volunteer support up to 48 hours.

“When I got to the hospital, he was labored and distraught. I sat with him and found a spot on his forehead that I rubbed gently. I repeated over and over, ‘you’re safe; you’re loved; you’re not alone,’” said Wright. “At some point he opened his eyes and looked at me and seemed so calm.” She remained by his bedside after he passed – just after 11:00 in the morning.

Lori Luther, the COO for IU Health Ball Memorial also volunteers her time with NODA.

“I’m not clinical, I’m not a nurse, I’m not a physician and I see all the wonderful things that our clinicians and patient-facing staff do. This was an opportunity for me to actually touch a life and experience this,” said Luther. She said she was motivated by the time she spent in the Middle East shortly after 9/11 working as a healthcare consultant. “I experienced a very lonely aloneness and I think about somebody dying alone. It’s not something you should have to do.”

As she sat with the patient Luther gently rubbed his arm and talked to him in hushed tones. Music played and a calm and comfort filled the room.

Susan Magrath, a retired nurse practitioner at IU Health Ball Memorial Hospital who spent years working in palliative care, started the program. It was not unusual to spend the end of her shift sitting with patients in the final stages of their lives. When she retired in February, Magrath made it her mission to start the program she learned about from a daylong conference sponsored by the RESPECT Center at IUPUI – Research in Palliative and End-of-Life Communication and Training.

A national volunteer program NODA started in 2001 in Eugene, Ore. with a goal of providing bedside companionship during the last hours of life.

“We’re working now to get the word out that this is available to patients. We don’t want to miss anyone,” said Magrath. After the first vigil she reached out to the nurses for feedback. “They seemed to appreciate that we were there in the middle of the night and able to advocate for the patient’s needs when there was no family there. This can happen at any time.”

Wright, owner of Cotton Candy Quilts in Gaston, Ind. said she was looking at ways to volunteer after she semi retired.

“I have a bucket list and one says ‘I want to make a difference in someone’s life,’” said Wright, who lost her brother to cancer and her mother to a stroke.

“I think death is part of life and we’ve institutionalized it over the past 19 years,” said Wright. “I knew I could do this. Not everyone could but it’s inherent that death is a human part of life and I no one should die alone.”

— By T.J. Banes, Journalist, IU Health.
Reach Banes via email tfender1@iuhealth.org.