Sandra Clarke, RN, nursing supervisor at Sacred Heart Medical Center University District, Eugene, OR, will never forget the day she was caring for an elderly gentleman at the end of life.
He had no one to sit with him, so Clarke promised to stay at his bedside after she'd checked on her other patients. One thing led to another, and before she was able to return, the man passed away.
"I reasoned he was a DNR, [he had] no family, [he was] very old, with end-stage multiorgan disease [but] now he was gone, and I felt awful," she recalled. "It was OK for him to die, it was his time - but not alone. I looked around; scores of people were nearby providing state-of-the-art patient care.
"For this man, state-of-the-art should have been dignity and respect."
That experience led Clarke to found No One Dies Alone (NODA) in November 2001.
A volunteer program that provides companions to patients who are dying and who would otherwise be alone, NODA provides a dignified death to individuals who have no family or close friends to sit with them at the end of life.
"A couple of things combined to make NODA possible," Clarke said. "First, society had finally come to a point where we are so stretched in terms of how we live and where we live that sometimes there is no one around at the end of [a person's] life. And second, computers allowed us to develop a phone tree that brings volunteers to the bedside."
The NODA program has since been adopted by hospitals across the country.
Father Tim Hasenecz, known simply as Father Tim, chaplain and coordinator of the NODA program at Lehigh Valley Hospital, Allentown, PA, explained his commitment to organizing and training a cadre of volunteers.
"Everyone is born amid celebration, and there's human touch and the sound of the human voice at the beginning of life," he noted. "There should be human touch and human voices at the end of life, as well. No one should ever die alone."
Suited to the Cause
Potential NODA volunteers at Lehigh Valley meet with Father Tim to ensure they are emotionally prepared for the program.
"Naturally, we have a screening process to see whether volunteers are ready for a role in the NODA program," he said. "I was a hospice chaplain here at the hospital for 5 years, and met people who wanted to help out after their loved ones died. Many times, it was just too soon for them."
Ongoing education and support help NODA volunteers tackle this big responsibility.
"We have a class to help people understand and adapt to the hospital culture, and some people realize during the class this just isn't something for them," Father Tim said.
"We're in the process of setting up speakers to come in and talk with our volunteers about death and dying, or about the medical aspects of what people are going through at the end of life. My phone coordinators are always available for questions and issues, and I'm here to debrief our volunteers, as well."
In many ways, volunteers get back more than they give. "It takes a unique person to volunteer for something like this, but the ability to be there with that touch of humanity that gives comfort is very satisfying," Father Tim said. "We're there to walk with [patients] as far as we can, so they're relaxed enough to die with dignity and comfort."