Tahlequah Daily Press

Local News

July 27, 2012

Volunteers ease end-of-life transition

TAHLEQUAH — Gregg Serrano is no stranger to death. After being a helpmate through the final phases of life to a number of people, Gregg decided to take the next step and become a hospice volunteer.

“I feel like God has nudged me in this direction,” said Serrano.

He began volunteering for Hope Hospice a little over a year ago, and feels helping people retain dignity and respect at the end of life is key.

“[To do this kind of work] you have to be compassionate and be a good listener,” said Serrano. “There are so many people involved in a hospice patient’s life – doctors, nurses, family members – that it’s important to have someone on your side who can speak up and voice opinions about what the patient wants.”

Serrano visits his current patient once a week or whenever he has a free minute to share a story, a laugh, or even a cigar.

“Patients don’t require much from us, as far as time is concerned,” said Serrano. “I go out of the fullness of my heart. For instance, one of my patients, a lady, smokes. She wanted to sit on her porch, talk about her kids and smoke a cigar, so that’s what we did. I smoked cigars with her. We also talked about vintage TV shows like ‘Gunsmoke,’ and things like that. When we visited, she just became vibrant. I truly believe what we do, as volunteers, makes things easier for the patients.”

Patients become involved with hospice at varying stages at the end of life. Volunteers are as varied as the patients, and Serrano readily admits he’s better working with patients who are very close to dying.

“I had one gentleman who had about two weeks to live,” said Serrano. “At one point, I visited him four times in one day, as he had no family here locally. But he felt he was really OK with the situation because of the time and effort we devoted to checking in on him.”

Hope Hospice Volunteer Coordinator Mary Pat Rosenthal believes matching volunteers to patients is of primary importance, as the fit has to be “just right.”

“Patients relate to volunteers on a totally different level,” said Rosenthal. “They have so many clinical people coming in and out of their lives who check vitals and run other tests.

Serrano agreed, saying volunteers focus only on individual’s mental well-being.

“Volunteers have no [medical] agenda,” he said. “Our only job is to bring comfort and peace, and I let them take the lead.”

Serrano believes many people may want to volunteer for hospice organizations, but are afraid to make the call.

“Mary Pat is amazing at matching people,” said Serrano. “She finds the strengths in the volunteers and compares those to individual patient’s needs. Just tell Mary Pat, and she will make the fit.”

Volunteers, by definition, are unpaid, but Rosenthal makes sure her staff feel appreciated.

“We get Payday candy bars in the mail with our continuing education packets,” said Serrano. “I have to say, I love the pay here.”

Lee James has only been with Hope Hospice for a couple of months. The loss of her parents and retirement from retail were the catalysts for her decision to join the team.

“I worked retail for 45 years, when I found myself out of a job” said James. “My parents, who lived in Tennessee, both passed away, and had hospice. After seeing how my parents were cared for, and how much comfort the hospice volunteers provided me, since I couldn’t be there with my folks – well, I just wanted to give that back. I like to believe my parents are watching my volunteer work now, and are proud of me.”

James said after working with people most of her life, she’s developed a sense of humor, which is important when dealing with patients.

“I’m a silly person, but very serious about what I do,” said James. “The client I’m working with right now gets overwhelmed. Some days, it’s tears, and some days, it’s giggles. No matter what – tears or giggles – it’s always happy.”

James uses both humor and crafts to connect with patients.

“Right now, my patient loves to work with flowers,” said James. “So I bring him lots of artificial flowers, and we create bouquets and other things. He shares with me the flowers he loves. When his wife was alive, he sent her a bouquet every single month. I just can’t explain the reward.”

James said that after retiring, she couldn’t sit at home and watch television.

“I had been so busy all my life, I felt like I had gone from hero to zero in no time flat,” she said. “But now, I’m back. I would recommend hospice volunteering to anyone who has a place in their heart that needs filling.”

Rosenthal said Hope Hospice accepts volunteers of all ages.

“We take retirees, people who are employed full-time, college students; we even have a junior volunteer program for people ages 5-18,” said Rosenthal. “As you can imagine, the patient situation is constantly in flux. Volunteers have individual passions, and we’re so fortunate here in Tahlequah to have so many different entities for volunteers. That said, we are always looking for additional volunteers.”

Requirements to become a volunteer include a background check and screening, drug test and four hours of training, as well as continuing education as required by Medicare and Medicaid.

“Our service area is broad, and we try not to have volunteers travel beyond their hometown,” said Rosenthal. “Volunteers are just that, and we try to make it conducive to their lifestyle.”

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