MILLERSBURG -- More lives are touched every day by debilitating diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer's disease. It is nice to know that there are organizations such as LifeCare Hospice to help families along life's journey into the final season of life.
Rebecca McCurdy, volunteer coordinator for Hospice LifeCare, is responsible for recruiting and training the team of nearly 200 volunteers.
"I love what I'm doing," McCurdy said. "We have about 200 volunteers altogether. The people that I work with are just the best."
Her job is to recruit them, train them and then enjoy them.
"I ask them to do things all day for no money," she said. "We have such extraordinary people. And that's the thing. We attract a certain kind of person. We have a lot of retired nurses, but we also have a lot of retired business people. A medical background is not required to be a volunteer. We ask some of our volunteers to visit people in the nursing home, which is a little easier in the type of care you have to do, but it is still emotionally very demanding."
Keeping volunteers is difficult because it is tough losing the patients whom volunteers are brought in to help out.
"In our world, we call it 'Compassion Fatigue.' What really happens is, you get your heart broken. And this is while things are going on in your personal life," McCurdy said. "You have to figure out if this is the right season of your life to do this kind of thing.
"Even though we are totally honest and open-eyed about approaching death, really, everything we do is about life. How concentrated and poignant life gets in the last months, what we call the last season of life," she continued. "The opportunity to reflect on your life and make sure all your relationships are healthy, and keep people out of pain so they can do those things. If you are in pain, or nauseated or having trouble breathing, you can't do any of that stuff."
No matter how hard they try, volunteers can't help but get emotionally attached to the families and the patients.
"We talk about boundaries all the time, but there is no getting around the fact that we care deeply about all these folks. Watching them decline can be difficult," McCurdy said. "It's going to hurt. Being willing to let somebody else's turmoil into your own life for a period of time so you can be a help to them. Believe me, I think most of the population runs for the hills when they hear Hospice. There are certain people that say to themselves, 'You know what. That would mean something, and I can do that.' Some just do it for a couple years.
"This year we'll honor a person who has done this for 25 years. She was in my first training class," McCurdy added. "For some people this is just the right thing. But it is not for everybody."
Most volunteers are self screened. They show up the first night of training, and they are told exactly what's involved, and some come back, and some don't.
There are other things volunteers can do as a hospice volunteer aside from helping give care, such as medicine delivery, helping out in the office. There are ways of helping the organization without building relationships with patients. "But the biggest chunk of our need is for patient care volunteers," she said.
"What's cool is, our emphasis is on making every day as good as possible. That's really the job of our volunteer program, to enhance the quality of life of the patient and ease the burden of the caregiver, in whatever way that's possible," McCurdy said. "We hear wonderful stories, and we can bring favorite foods, and give the caregiver a break, we have pet therapy, music sharing people, and just about all the good things in life, and trying to focus on them, while the rest of the team is working on keeping people pain-free, as alert as possible, and the physical parts. The volunteer team works on the joyful things we can bring into people's lives.
"We take the attitude, I don't have forever, but I've got today; what do I want to do with it. Just sitting there, listening and talking and reading and singing, yeh, it's pretty important stuff," she added.
"Doing what people really want done is such a pleasure," McCurdy said. "We get sad. After 25 years, I still cry a couple times a day. But, most of the time it's really for joy because somebody got something they were really hoping to get done."
Christy Michaels, LifeCare Hospice director of clinical operations, said she started as a direct care social worker at LifeCare Hospice. "I would meet with patients and their families, and I would explain our volunteer program, in that, if there is a need, let me know about it, and I'll bet one of our volunteers can help with that need.
"Our volunteers do amazing things. They provide direct patient care, so they can provide respite to care givers, so the caregiver can go to the grocery store, get their hair done or simply take a nap.
Hospice care is compassionate care for families with a loved one with a terminal illness. But it is so much more: they have board certified hospice and physicians on staff, as well as clinical pharmacists to help with the numerous medications being administered, registered nurses, LPNs, social workers and bereavement counselors. They have dietitians and therapists who are specially trained in taking care of people in their last months. We also have a chaplain, spiritual care volunteers.
"And, we have an army of direct care volunteers," Michaels said. "Over 200 of our community members have volunteered to help in any way that our patients and our families need. We tailor our services to whatever your family wants.
"Most people just want comfort. We are experts in that. But after that. Then what? What is that one thing you wanted to do. Do you want to go on a trip? Plant a garden, or just spend time playing with your grandkids. What is important to you, and how can we make that happen," she continued. "We had one woman who wanted to ride in a muscle car. She had never gotten to do that. That's what she wanted to do. We had another man who wanted to meet a professional wrestler. Hulk Hogan called him on the phone, and he could not have been happier to be able to talk to the Hulk on the phone."
The volunteers receive 30 hours of training over 10 weeks for three hours a night.
"We train our volunteers on everything on the philosophy of service to bereavement, we train on the psycho-social emotional side of things, and direct care; how they can help someone who may have difficulty walking get from a bed to a chair; the practical things as well," Michaels said. "We want to make sure that each one of our volunteers is confident going out to take care of patients. It is great training to have. We do one evening on listening alone. You think you are a good listener until you go through our training. It is great life training."
A clinical psychologist comes in and trains volunteers in active listening. McCurdy has been through many training sessions, and remembers a phone call with her mother that ended with her mom thanking her for being such a good listener.
Training for new Millersburg area volunteers begins in June. Anyone interested should contact McCurdy at 330-674-8448 or 800-884-6547, or online at www.lifecarehospice.org.
Reporter Kevin Lynch can be reached at 330-674-5676 or firstname.lastname@example.org.