Proximity to death has brought Stan Sutliff, a longtime hospice volunteer, to a fuller understanding of life.
"Every death is different. Every person is different," he said. "Except value, the human value of each one of them."
Hospice House and Support Care of Williamsburg has partnered with Sentara Williamsburg Regional Medical Center to pilot a vigil program placing trained volunteers, including Sutliff, with patients — who might otherwise die alone — in their last 24 to 48 hours of life.
"We want to bring back that sense of community that in some ways has left our culture, in terms of recognizing the value of human life and recognizing the value of presence and being there as a community as we celebrate and mourn a human life," said Debra Maviglia Podish, director of patient and family volunteer services at Hospice House.
With 32 trained volunteers, the Final Gifts Vigil Program will launch Jan. 1 in the Four South Unit of Sentara Williamsburg, an 18-bed medical oncology unit that typically houses patients nearing life's end.
Hospice House has worked to provide end-of-life support since 1982, but about a year ago, Podish said the organization identified a need for 24/7 vigil support, especially in a retirement community like Williamsburg.
"Right now, we're very focused in on patients, individuals in our community, that are alone on that journey," Podish said. "They don't have the support, either because their family is not present or they've outlived all of their support or their support is aging with them and really can't be there for any length of time."
Hospice House researched other vigil programs, found a partner in Sentara Williamsburg and funding through a $5,000 grant from Williamsburg Community Foundation. Following training, volunteers will begin a pre-pilot phase at Hospice House before entering the Four South Unit.
The logistics are relatively simple: after nursing staff identifies a dying patient who needs support, volunteers sign up for four-hour shifts with the individual. During those shifts, they might offer a hand to hold, soothing words, music.
The effects, however, will likely be profound.
"Being present with those individuals to affirm to them in the deepest possible sense that, yes, you matter. What you did mattered. Your life mattered," Podish said. "That, I think, is the most important thing that our volunteers at that point in time during the vigil are doing is affirming that sense of connectedness that they had to the world and the value that their life had in this world."
Hospice House chaplain Hannah Creager will work closely with volunteers throughout training and the program itself. Prior to Hospice House, Creager worked as a hospital chaplain.
"If you ask most people what they're most afraid of as they are dying, they'll usually say one of two things: they'll say the pain, and they'll say of being alone," she said. The vigil program provides "the personal piece of the puzzle, that in today's medical world is hard to meet with the rising health and medical demands in our community."
The nursing staff of Four South has seen this, too.
Donna Wilmoth, chief nurse executive at Sentara Williamsburg, explained that nurses strive to be present as their patient passes away, but it's not always possible when caring for multiple patients at once.
"We would never want any patients to die alone," she said. "The need to just know that your loved one has somebody, a trained individual, that is just holding their hand, being there to support the patient, that is a huge need."
Wilmoth sees the partnership between Hospice House and Sentara Williamsburg as a collaboration, as nurses and hospice volunteers learn from each other.
The pilot will last six months, and Podish has planned monthly meetings with nursing staff to evaluate the program, as well as meetings with volunteers. The future of the program, whether it will continue or expand, likely can't be determined until after the pilot. But Podish and Wilmoth hope to see it grow.
"One of the things that Hospice House has done throughout the decades we've been here has been to facilitate the discussion about end of life, to facilitate the discussion about support services that are available, to encourage community to continue to be community," Podish said. "I think we could play that role in this as well as we see it be a successful program—say, you know, we can do this as a community. And I think we can."
Bridges can be reached by phone at 757-345-2342.
For more information
On the vigil program or if you're interested in becoming a Hospice House volunteer, visit williamsburghospice.org or contact Debra Podish at 757-253-1220 or firstname.lastname@example.org.