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No One Dies Alone program offers comfort to the end

Volunteering to aid terminal patients at a hospital, a woman finds patience, calm and compassion she didn't know she had. No One Dies Alone started in Oregon in 2001 and has spread across the country.

July 05, 2012|By Thomas Curwen, Los Angeles Times

Barbara Farkas is certain about what happens after death. It is the end, she says; there is no heaven, no hell, no journey that lies ahead. Her conviction hasn't changed, no matter how many times she has sat with the dying.

Holding Taylor Hall's hand, she could tell he would be around for a while. She felt his grip and looked into his bright blue eyes. He was getting a fairly light dosage of morphine, at least for now, she thought.

Hall had been admitted to the hospital two days earlier, consigned to a hospice room, and as soon as Farkas got the news, she scheduled time to keep him company. They were strangers, but that hardly mattered. Aside from a few friends, he had no one in his life.

"Are you thirsty?" she asked. "Shall I wet your lips? Would that feel good?"

Hall turned to face her. He was 57. His short cropped hair, bushy mustache and eyebrows reminded her of her uncle John. He was delirious either from pain medication or his tumor — she didn't know — but he managed to speak.

"Thank you, ma'am."

His room had a sliding door that was open to a courtyard, and a breeze pushed the curtains out, breaking the twilight inside with a thin sliver of light.

He lay elevated on the bed. A loose bandage covered the left side of his neck where the tumor, a nasopharyngeal cancer, had broken through the skin. An IV line entered his left wrist.

Farkas, 68, leaned close and moistened his lips with a green swab. She noticed that he was missing a few teeth.

Her life was so different not so long ago when she worked for a manufacturer of semiconductors in Torrance. She was on the phone all day with clients, processing international shipments and expediting orders.

She had a reputation, she says, for being outspoken, and if she exploded at someone, it was only in the course of doing the job. She was under pressure and had a sales quota to make. Then in April 2009, she was called into the human resources department. She was one of 28 employees let go in a downsizing.

After 30 years on the job, staying at home wasn't an option. Her husband, a high school teacher, had no intention of slowing down. Volunteering seemed to make sense, so she signed up with Little Company of Mary Medical Center in Torrance and twice a week drove from her home in Gardena to escort patients and assist the nurses.

When she heard that the hospital was starting a program called No One Dies Alone, she was intrigued. A few years earlier, she regularly visited a friend who was dying and felt good for being able to help with his care and comfort him.

Today she is one of 32 volunteers who attend to patients as their schedules allow. Since signing up two years ago, Farkas has sat with at least 30 patients, and the experience has changed her, she says, leading her to discover patience, calm and compassion she didn't know she had.

"Do you want to listen to music or do you just want to rest?" she asked Hall.

His words came out as a hoarse, indistinguishable whisper. She fiddled with the CD player, and Glenn Miller started to play.

"I don't think you like swing music," she said. She had heard that he was a fan of the Rolling Stones.

Despite the open door, the room smelled foul, the result of bacteria and necrotic flesh around the tumor, but Farkas was not bothered. She once sat with a woman with ovarian cancer who needed to be bathed twice a day. The nurses wondered how Farkas could stay in that room for four hours straight. She said she got used to it.

She has seen how tenacious life can be. Without food and on only pain medication, patients endure. Death comes slowly, and she recognizes its onset: dehydration, incontinence, congestion and the panic that sets in as breathing becomes more difficult.

Hall, whose last job was at a car dealership a few years back, had been in a residential care facility in San Pedro and then in Long Beach as his cancer advanced. In May, he was discovered unconscious and taken to St. Mary Medical Center. Doctors stabilized him, but he was too fragile for treatment.

He is divorced, his parents are dead and he is estranged from his brother, so he put a friend in charge of his health, and together they decided that he should enter hospice care.

"How do you feel?" Farkas asked, trying to maintain a conversation. "Do you want me to let you sleep?"

No One Dies Alone was started in Oregon in 2001 when a dying man asked a nurse to sit with him. She agreed but first needed to make her rounds. When she returned, the man was dead, and the nurse resolved to enlist volunteers to stay with patients who were alone and close to death.

The program was picked up by other hospitals around the country, and began at Little Company of Mary in 2009.

"We instinctively know that people at certain times of their lives shouldn't be alone," said Denise Hess, the hospital's chaplain for palliative care.

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