Through a dedicated group of volunteers, the No One Dies Alone program at Munroe Regional Medical Center extends compassion from one human being to another, often with a gesture as simple as the touch of a hand.
Munroe Regional Medical Center Chaplain Tom Carson believes everyone
should have a dignified death and that no one should die alone.
Birth and death are the bookends of our lives. Birth is almost always a cause for celebration, bringing people together to commemorate the miracle of new life. Death, on the other hand, tends to scare people, scattering them about and away.
By the very nature of the act, no one is born alone. But often people do die alone.
For Chaplain Tom Carson, this is unacceptable. And it’s why that when he became aware of the No One Dies Alone program, he knew he had to develop one for Munroe Regional Medical Center.
“Just by chance, I came across the No One Dies Alone program while surfing the Internet one day,” says Chaplain Carson, who has managed the MRMC Pastoral Care department for the past 10 years. “Having ministered to many people at the end of their lives, many with no one with them but me, the program deeply touched me.”
Chaplain Carson, with the support of the nursing staff, oversees the No One Dies Alone program at MRMC.
Basil Bristow, a volunteer with the No One Dies Alone program,
sits with a patient at Munroe Regional Medical Center.
It began simply enough, with a nurse named Sandra Clarke at Sacred Heart Medical Center in Eugene, Oregon. While on duty one night, Clarke was asked by a dying patient, who had no family or friends there, to stay with him. She told him that she had several other patients to attend to and then she’d come back to stay with him. But by the time she returned, the patient had died.
Not only was Clarke filled with remorse, but when she looked around the hospital, she realized there were many others who were dying and alone. In November 2001, Clarke established the No One Dies Alone program at Sacred Heart Medical Center. The program has since spread to hospitals nationwide.
“We started the program here in August 2005, and it has been very well received,” says Chaplain Carson. “We currently have more than 70 volunteers, called ‘compassionate companions,’ in the program. The volunteers either have to be MRMC employees or involved in the MRMC volunteer services department to be part of No One Dies Alone.
“The patients can be someone who has no family or friends to be with them. Sometimes they have outlived their loved ones. Other times, they live too far away to be here or perhaps feel as though they can’t emotionally handle being with someone who is dying.”
Each volunteer goes through a one-hour orientation program to prepare them to be with a dying patient. To provide 24-hour coverage, each volunteer is asked to be available for four-hour shifts. A care bag containing reading material, music CDs, and a CD player is provided for each shift. Many volunteers bring their own books and music.
“But the most important thing is that someone is there,” says Chaplain Carson. “Our mission is that everyone has a dignified death.”
The volunteers come from all walks of life and became involved in the No One Dies Alone program for myriad reasons. In speaking with four of them about their involvement and experiences, the words gift, honor, and privilege came up again and again.
All spoke of the importance of just being there, of somehow bearing witness to that person’s existence here in this world and then passing on to another.
Truly, in life and in death, there can be no greater gift to each other than our presence.
‘No One Should Be Alone’
HAL STEIN LEARNED ABOUT COMPASSION at a very early age. An only child, he was but six when his mother died of breast cancer. But his father, a factory worker, was not left alone to raise his son.
“I grew up in a small town in Illinois called Naperville,” says Stein, “and it seemed like everyone in that little town pitched in to help my father raise me. It was a great lesson in compassion and one that I’ve never forgotten.”
No doubt this early lesson spurred Stein’s nearly lifelong volunteerism. Stein, who graduated from the University of Dubuque with a business administration degree and a minor in psychology, began volunteering while still living in Illinois. As a member of his local Kiwanis club, he volunteered at the hospital, a school for boys at risk, and later went on a church mission to Honduras.
“Going to a country like Honduras really makes you appreciate how fortunate we are to live in America,” says Stein. “The people there have so little and when you just provide them with the very basics, they are so grateful.”
After selling his plastics manufacturing company, Stein retired to the Ocala area in 2001. And it wasn’t long before he was volunteering in his new home.
“I kept hearing so many good things about Munroe Regional hospital,” says Stein, who at 75 is lean and fit thanks to being an avid tennis player for four decades. “I thought it would be a good place to volunteer.”
After a brief stint in the transportation department at the hospital, Stein heard about the new No One Dies Alone program. It was an easy decision for him to become a volunteer with the program.
“My wife, Lola, died of breast cancer in 1983 and I was right there at her bedside when she passed,” recalls Stein. “I feel very strongly that no one should be alone when it’s their time to pass on. As human beings, we all have a responsibility to each other.”
Stein particularly requested the late-night shifts, knowing that “for some volunteers,” this time “can be difficult to manage.” He is usually called on for the 4-8am shift.
“I particularly like to read to the person,” says Stein, who has eight grandchildren. “During one of my last sittings, I really thought the woman couldn’t hear me since there was no response at all from her, but I kept on reading. When the nurse came in to attend to her, I saw how she responded to the nurse and realized then that she had been hearing me read. I was glad that perhaps it had brought some comfort to her.”
For Stein, participating in the No One Dies Alone program is very gratifying.
“I almost feel a little guilty,” he says, “because I feel like I’m getting more back than I’m giving. In being there for someone, we are comforted as well.”
‘A Real Connection’
WITH HIS FULL HEAD of wavy silver hair and proper accent, Basil Bristow is just what you think a distinguished Englishman should look and sound like.
“I describe myself as English by birth and American by choice,” says Bristow, 77, who came to the United States in 1947 and became a citizen shortly thereafter. “I actually enlisted in the U.S. Army and received my citizenship while wearing my uniform before being stationed in Germany.”
After the service and three years of business college, Bristow and his late first wife, Evie (short for Evelyn), settled in South Hampton, New York. They owned and operated a gift shop that specialized in nautical-themed items until they retired in 1987. After a couple of years of living in California, they began looking for a new home.
“We definitely wanted to live where it was warm and some friends suggested Crystal River,” says Bristow. “Of course, we had to drive through Ocala to get to Crystal River. We fell in love with Ocala and never made it to Crystal River.”
Always a believer in volunteerism, Bristow soon began to get involved in various organizations in Marion County. It’s a long list that has included Habitat for Humanity, Interfaith Emergency Services, United Way, and Friends of the Ocala/Marion County Library. He also currently serves on the board of the Fifth Circuit Public Guardianship Corporation, which operates as court-appointed guardians of those who can no longer take care of themselves.
“There are so many wonderful organizations and worthy causes out there,” says Bristow. “I like to be involved in as many as possible. And after Evie died four years ago, I had even more time to volunteer.”
Bristow was volunteering in the computer department at MRMC, scanning records into electronic files and doing voice-over work for hospital films, when he heard of the No One Dies Alone program. He knew it was something that he wanted to be involved with right away.
“As it happened, Evie and I were at home sitting in chairs next to each other and reading when she passed,” remembers Bristow; he and Evie were married for 42 years. “She had had heart trouble for many years and I was glad that we were together when she passed. Becoming involved in the No One Dies Alone program just seemed like the right thing to do.”
Bristow makes himself available for any of the four-hour shifts, but has been mostly called for the midnight-to-4am stints. Like the other volunteers, he will read to the patients or put some classical music on the provided CD player.
“I definitely believe the patients know that we’re there with them,” says Bristow, who married his current wife Carol in February 2007. “I don’t feel like we’re just sitting there. I feel a real connection to the person and I consider it a privilege to be there for them.”
(L–R) Chaplain Tom Carson, Vicki Stapp, Hal Stein, Basil Bristow, and
Sally Ahrens, volunteers for the No One Dies Alone program.
‘It’s An Honor’
THE MEDICAL FIELD ALWAYS INTERESTED Vicki Stapp, who grew up in the Washington, D.C. area and whose father was a pharmacist. It was an easy decision to become a nurse and since graduating from the Medical College of Virginia in 1972, Stapp has been involved in the medical profession.
Up until she moved to Ocala four years ago and went to work at Munroe Regional, Stapp had been a patient care registered nurse at various institutions. Husband Ron was in the U.S. Air Force, so they traveled quite a bit until his recent retirement. Stapp currently works in the MRMC Quality Management Department, a position that allows her to maintain contact with patients.
“I knew immediately when I heard about the No One Dies Alone program that I wanted to be involved with it,” says Stapp, 57, a petite, soft-spoken woman with warm hazel eyes. “I love being a nurse. But as a nurse, you have your job to do and you’re busy attending to several patients. The No One Dies Alone program allows me to be there for just one person.”
Stapp doesn’t wear her hospital name badge, so the floor nurses usually don’t even know that she’s a hospital employee or a nurse. It’s another way for her to distance herself from her professional persona and just be a person being there for another person. She usually works one of the evening shifts because, she says, “that’s usually when someone is needed the most.”
During a recent sitting with an elderly woman, who was non-responsive, Stapp read for a little while. But sitting there at the bedside, she noticed that the woman had particularly lovely hands.
“Her hands were very pretty and it just struck me that she was someone who had likely held people’s hands and had hers held as well,” recalls Stapp, her voice soft with emotion at the memory. “So I stopped reading and just sat there, stroking her hands and holding them. I just thought that was the right thing to do for her.”
With her daughter, Sally, having gone through treatment for thyroid cancer, Stapp knows about being there for someone. One of the reasons Stapp moved to Ocala was to be near her daughter who lives in Gainesville and is herself a nurse practitioner. Stapp also has three other children and one grandson.
“Being involved in the No One Dies Alone program fills my heart to be able to give comfort,” says Stapp. “It’s an honor to be with someone during their last hours on this earth.”
BOLD, ENERGETIC, AND DIRECT, Sally Ahrens has been with the MRMC Volunteer Senior Services program for the past seven years. As customer service liaison, she works at the main desk in the Palmer Lobby and occasionally drives the visitor shuttle bus.
“I knew the minute I walked into MRMC that I had found a home,” says Ahrens, who grew up in Iowa and Minnesota. “My first job out of high school was at a hospital. I like how people who work in hospitals are helping others.”
One of four children, Ahrens has two daughters, two stepsons, 16 grandchildren, and 10 great grandchildren spread out across the country.
In addition to her hospital volunteer work, Ahrens also did volunteer hospice work for five years. She was also involved for many years with a church program called Befrienders that helps people deal with loss. When she heard of the No One Dies Alone program, she wanted to be involved because she thought she had a unique perspective to bring to it.
“My mother was a stroke victim and she couldn’t speak for almost four years before she passed on,” says Ahrens, 69. “I took care of her all that time and I learned to relate to people who can’t communicate. For the most part, the people we sit with in the No One Dies Alone program aren’t able to communicate and I am comfortable with that where a lot of people aren’t.”
Ahrens generally takes evening shifts with the No One Dies Alone program, following her usual daily volunteer stint at the front desk.
“With a lot of the elderly patients, even if they have a family member, it’s hard on them to stay through the night,” says Ahrens. “So I find that the evening shifts are where we usually are called to come in.”
For Ahrens, her caretaking experience with her late mother continues to give back in her No One Dies Alone volunteer work.
“I feel like I connect with the patients,” she says. “I look at life as a cup we’re always filling up and emptying and filling up again. Caregivers fill up their cups again by giving, not receiving. To be there with someone at the end of their life, to make that human connection, is a gift.”
Want To Know More?
MRMC Pastoral Care
Contact: Chaplain Tom Carson