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Care from life to death

Nov. 18, 1999

Students comfort terminally ill, families



While some students have a fear of death, others embrace the opportunity to learn more about it and help those who are close to it.

Alicia Abernethy, a Carlsbad, N.M., senior, and Melissa Bennett, a Crockett senior, recently completed the Hillcrest Hospice volunteer training program.

Hospice care is a compassionate method of caring for terminally ill people and their families. The program has an emphasis on pain and symptom control, so that a person may live the last days of life fully, with dignity and comfort, at home or in a home-like setting, according to the National Hospice Organization.

More than anything else, the two students are a means of support for dying patients and grieving families.

'It's listening to someone talk about how they're feeling and being able to maintain a conversation ... without imposing your own beliefs and opinions,' said Abernethy, who participated in the volunteer training as a part of her social work internship at Hillcrest Community Hospice.

'I think [the training] will help anyone. Everyone is going to have friend or someone they know go through [the dying] process,' Bennett said. 'We are all going to die someday ... just knowing the stages of the process is important.'

The training explores many different areas of hospice care.

'We teach people what hospice is ... its history, what we do and how we work closely as team members,' said Cherry Ogburn, volunteer coordinator at Hillcrest Community Hospice. 'We also go on a field trip to a funeral home to make the students comfortable with the setting and help them understand how the families feel.'

The training offers more than just immediate knowledge; it offers potential opportunities to meet the needs of a dying patient.

'The thing the volunteers enjoy more than anything is listening to what the patient has to say,' Ogburn said. 'When a patient is getting close to death, they like to tell the story of their life.'

Abernethy recalled the special time she spent with one of her patients who died three days later.

'I was able to spend time talking with her, letting her tell her story and helping her talk about the feelings she had about dying,' Abernethy said. 'I not only got to learn from her story, but she entrusted me [with] her hopes for the future of the world.'

The patients, though nearing life's end, have much to teach those who care for them in their last days.

'They become very profound and can teach you a lot about life--what matters and what doesn't,' Ogburn said.

The hospice program recognizes that some people have misconceptions about visiting a patient.

'People think they are going to walk into the room and the patient is going to die. That's not true at all,' Ogburn said.

Hospice volunteers also provide relief and support for the patient's family.

'Sometimes the patient has been laying in a coma and the families have been up all night. The volunteers can relieve the family to do grocery shopping or go to a hair appointment,' Ogburn said.

'For us as Americans, death is something very difficult for us to talk about because we think of our own death,' Abernethy said. 'When our friends are going through grief we don't respond how we should.'

The program has helped Bennett and Abernethy understand the needs of someone who is grieving over a significant loss.

'I think that [support] is very important, especially at Baylor. [Grief] affects more people than we realize and those people need to be supported,' Abernethy said. 'It's more than just saying you're sorry.'

Volunteers can also support families in other ways.

'There's a lot of different things [volunteers] can do if they don't want to be with the patient,' Ogburn said. 'For example, one of the caregivers is almost blind and needs help paying bills twice a month.'

For college students, the time commitment is the best reason to complete the training program. Although the program itself is three hours, two days a week for five weeks, volunteers can set their own schedule once they are certified.

'Students like this because it's not a set time,' Ogburn said. 'Schedules change every semester ... and it works perfect for someone who wants to give back to the community but doesn't have the same amount of time each week.'

The program is a gift to all those involved, but especially the students.

'They get a lot more out of it, more than they give. Every one of them will tell you that,' Ogburn said.

For more information about the hospice volunteer training program or its annual Light up a Life fundraiser, call 202-5158. Light up a Life has three Christmas trees at Lake Air Mall and allows people to make a donation for a dove ornament in honor of someone who is or was special in their life.