The no-one-dies-alone concept originated in Eugene, Ore., in 2001
The hospital room is dim as Cecilia Siwiec lies in bed, unconscious.
Her breathing is steady, distinguishable from the soft hum of medical machines.
Kay Sendegas walks into the room at St. Joseph Mercy Oakland Hospital in Pontiac, Mich., like she’s going to see an old friend.
It’s just after 9 p.m.
“Cecilia,” Sendegas says to the 91-year-old. “I’m with you tonight. This is Kay, Cecilia. Remember? I sat with you last night.”
Sendegas, 79, crosses to the other side of the bed. She takes Siwiec’s hand and, after a while, prays the rosary with the translucent blue beads by her bedside.
“Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”
Death, Sendegas believes, is not an end, but a new beginning. She is one of more than 112 active volunteers with the Comfort Companion — No One Dies Alone program at St. Joseph Oakland, one of many hospitals and hospice facilities across metro Detroit that are helping ease patients’ journeys to the other side with volunteers willing to be a comfort in challenging times. They read to dying people, talk with them, pray with them.
They are a comfort to not only the patients, but also to weary family members.
To Sendegas, who makes the trip to the hospital from her home in Auburn Hills, Mich., it is a privilege.
She remembers the time she read aloud to an unconscious woman for three nights. On the fourth day, the woman awoke and told her husband about the passage she had heard. And there’s the time she was looking after an elderly man who, right before his death, opened his eyes wide as a single tear trickled down his cheek.
“Most people who die, right at the end ... especially those who are so peaceful, always end up with the sweetest little smile,” Sendegas says.
The no-one-dies-alone concept originated at Sacred Heart Medical Center in Eugene, Ore., in 2001 to provide companions to terminally ill patients with no friends or family members.
Sacred Heart’s program coordinator Carleen McCornack says there is increasing interest worldwide in the effort. Though there is no record of how many such programs exist, McCornack says she has sent close to 1,200 startup guides to interested parties.
Karin D’Antona lost her mother, Jody Headlee, last year.
D’Antona worried that the program at Beaumont Hospital in Troy, Mich., would be religious. She was surprised to find it was not.
D’Antona, 60, of Ft. Mill, S.C., says the volunteers made her mom so comfortable that she looked forward to their visits each day.
“She really perked up,” D’Antona says. “She would say to my sister and I, ‘Oh, Jim is here now,’ or, ‘Sally is here now. You go downstairs and have a bite to eat.’
“She was happy.”
Michael Whorf, 78, was introduced to the program in 2006 when a team of volunteers at St. Joseph Oakland took care of his dying wife, Barbara, who was undergoing treatment for leukemia and a failing nervous system.
“It gave me the opportunity to get some sleep; I was exhausted,” he says. “I knew she was safe and cared for, and I could get a good night’s sleep.”
Death and beyond — they are worries of patients and their families.
Volunteers help reduce the stress, experts say.
“This is humanity at its ultimate,” says Dr. Ken Richter, the medical director of palliative medicine at St. Joseph Oakland. “People are coping with the big questions.”
Some hospitals offer stereos in rooms, prayer books, rosaries and even supplies to make hand cast molds of patients’ hands — mementos families can hold onto after their loved one passes. Volunteers have played board games with patients or entertained them with musical instruments.
Jim Wagener started volunteering at Beaumont after both his parents went through hospice care. He wants everyone to have support at the time of their death.
“I think we don’t realize that there are people that outlive their families or people that are alone,” says Wagener, 63. “You almost see people coming to grips with the end and the more you comfort them, the more they seem to be OK with it.”
Volunteer Joanne Bellestri tells the patients she visits not to be afraid.
The 75-year-old has been a volunteer at Beaumont Hospital in Grosse Pointe, Mich., for more than a year. The experience of losing her husband helps Bellestri sit at a patient’s bedside without being somber.
“Death,” she says, “is a part of life.”
Barbara Stephen, St. Joseph Oakland’s supportive care services coordinator, and Peg Nelson, a nurse practitioner and the clinical director of palliative care and pain services, have trained more than 300 volunteers and fostered about 50 other programs around the country. Together, St. Joseph Oakland volunteers have served 410 patients and sat for more than 8,400 hours at people’s bedsides.
“We look at it two ways,” Nelson says. “We look at it as this humanizing presence that’s going to be there and help them not be afraid ... but we also see it very seriously as protecting people from pain and distress.”
Pain and distress are common near the end of life and, if a patient is alone, some of that suffering may go unnoticed for a longer period of time.
According to the 2008 Michigan Special Cancer Behavioral Risk Factor Survey, which randomly samples adults age 40 years or older in Michigan, 47.9 percent of terminally ill patients experience mild to moderate pain in the last three months of life and 43 percent experience severe to excruciating pain.
Several bird feeders hang outside on the porch of Kay Sendegas’ home.
She keeps them full, adding black pepper to repel hungry squirrels. Her husband always filled the bird feeders, even when he had cancer, even shortly before his death.
He loved the birds. Now, Sendegas does, too.
She was there when her husband died. She was there when her mother passed away, too.
Sendegas is a woman of faith. Being there for people as they transition from life to death, she says, is a gift.
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