Some volunteers had loved ones who died alone. They said no one deserves that.
A newly created program at Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital in Valencia called No One Dies Alone will pair volunteer caregivers with those patients in their last moments of life who don’t have family or friends to be with them.
During a recent training session, the Rev. Sandra Weinberg, chaplain supervisor at Henry Mayo, told a room of 13 volunteers that what they were doing was “heart work.”
“Our being is more important than our doing,” Weinberg said.
She also read a quote from Mother Teresa: “No one should die alone. Each human should die with the sight of a loving face.”
Upon her arrival at Henry Mayo as chaplain supervisor almost a year and a half ago, Weinberg said she and other chaplains were faced with regularly sitting alongside patients who would’ve otherwise died alone. Having worked in other hospitals that used the No One Dies Alone (or NODA) program — a nationwide, non-faith-based program — she suggested that hospital management consider adopting it.
“Nurses were very distressed as they came to chaplains for some support — emotional and spiritual,” she told The Signal in a telephone interview before the volunteer training. “Support, because they wanted to attend to their patients who were dying who had no visitors. But they also had a lot of other demands on them with other patients. And so, we simply recognized the need and presented it.”
Weinberg said the response she got was positive, and once she got the green light, it took about nine months for her and others to put everything together. Then they put out a call to those who might be interested in volunteering, and in the training session they worked with 13 such volunteers who are now ready to provide companionship, support and compassion to hospitalized patients who do not have anyone known to be present with them at their bedside while they’re dying.
According to April Garcia, manager of volunteer services at Henry Mayo, volunteers at the training all attended a general orientation before joining the NODA training. Garcia added that the group was made up of both current volunteers and new ones as well, of different religious denominations — at least one with no denomination — and ranging from college pre-med students to senior citizens.
Volunteer John Lupu, a Valencia resident and pre-med student, said he was volunteering for the experience and as a means to learn more about compassion.
Susie Smith of Castaic told The Signal, “I have to do this. I need to do this.”
Smith added that her dad died alone. Her husband also died alone —18 days before her dad died. Both men had COVID-19 and were unable to have guests.
“I don’t want that to happen to another person,” she continued.
Having been alongside her mom when she died, Smith said she knows the importance of a bedside companion during such times.
Weinberg added that Valencia and its proximity to Interstate 5 and California state routes 14 and 23 bring unique situations to the hospital.
“When you think about where our hospital is located — with the intersection of the freeways — we have a lot of truck drivers that are coming through here,” she said. “We had an incident once where a gentleman stopped to get something to eat at a local fast-food place, and he ended up having a heart attack and was brought into the ER and, you know, his family lived out of state. So, if he had been at risk of dying and family would not have been able to get here in time, then we would’ve activated a NODA volunteer.”
And then there are those on vacation, at places like Six Flags Magic Mountain who might have some trauma that puts them in critical condition, elderly people who have outlived all of their relatives, and homeless people, she said, who might die alone.
“Basically,” Weinberg said, “what they (the volunteers) are going to be doing is sitting at the bedside for about two- to three-hour blocks of time, one at a time, with patients who would otherwise die alone.”
Some of the takeaways from the training were infection prevention, so that volunteers don’t take anything home with them — infections are transmitted in many ways — how to enter a patient’s room quietly and respectfully, introduce oneself, create a comfortable atmosphere of peace and trust; and ways to engage with the patient through talking, reading, singing or playing music, and praying, should the patient be religious.
According to Weinberg, what volunteers carry into the room is what the patient will experience.
Volunteers also learned what to expect in a person as death draws near, the importance of human touch, sitting quietly and honoring the silence with the patient, and saying goodbye after a visit, thanking the patient for the honor to sit with them.
“While someone is dying, they are still very much living,” Weinberg said.
Danica Lynch, a spiritual care volunteer who assisted Weinberg in training volunteers, opened up and shared the contents of what the program calls “the purple NODA rolling bag,” or what Lynch called “an amazing little bag.”
Items inside included blankets, books for reading, books for journaling, coloring books, small U.S. flags for veterans, rosaries, an interfaith minister’s book, a Bible and a CD player with CDs. Some stuff inside is for volunteers to use themselves to pass the time.
“This work is beautiful,” Lynch said, “but it can be heavy.” She stressed the importance of self-care and how this type of work can take its toll on volunteers. She went through ways to practice self-care, and addressed possible triggers.
Weinberg said Henry Mayo’s NODA program already has 14 volunteers, two of whom have even provided service already. Weinberg expects the program to be hospital-wide within the next few weeks.
“Our desire — our hope,” she said, “is that every quarter we would offer the training class for people who are interested in the future. The bottom line is, we’re all human beings, and there are people around us when we’re born, and we really believe that what is the most sacred times of life is the end of life, and there should be at least one other person present.”
To volunteer for NODA at Henry Mayo, those interested must first apply to the volunteer program through the hospital. For details and to get started, go to HenryMayo.com/support-henry-mayo/volunteer.