Meet Priscilla & Philip, HSM Volunteers
What drew you to this work in the first place?
Priscilla: I was a student at CHIME (Chaplaincy Institute of Maine) and had to do volunteer work as part of the program. I kept thinking about hospice. I got an invitation from Mid Coast Hospice to attend the open house of their new library. Through that experience, I got involved doing volunteer work there and did that for several years. I then moved back to the Portland area. Not long after the move, I was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of uterine cancer. While I was recovering from surgery, radiation, chemo and everything that accompanies that, I met Philip. When I got well, we both were thinking about how we could give back. Philip is just naturally nurturing, so I mentioned to him that I thought he would like hospice work. That’s when we took the training here at Hospice of Southern Maine together and both started working at the Gosnell House. At the same time, there was an opening in the agency for a chaplain. I spoke with a mentor of mine at CHIME and said I was torn between the two. He wisely said “There is no choice here. You can always be a chaplain. How often will you and Philip get a chance like this to volunteer together?” My decision was made.
Philip: Priscilla and I realized how lucky we were to be together, how lucky that Priscilla was alive. I had previously been to Haiti to volunteer there. While that was a wonderful experience, it didn’t quite do it for me but it was the first step on a journey. Priscilla already had experience as a hospice volunteer. We then decided to do the training here at Hospice of Southern Maine together. I also had 2 early experiences with death that profoundly affected me. One was the death of a 5 year old niece to whom I was very connected. Another was a favorite student who died from Hodgkin’s Disease at age 18. I flew to Atlanta to take care of him for the last weeks of his life.
For how long have you been a volunteer?
Priscilla: I started at Mid Coast in 2003 – so it has been 11 years.
Philip: I did the Hospice of Southern maine volunteer training in 2008 and volunteered here at Gosnell. I took a couple of years off when things at work got too busy. I came back last fall.
How do you approach a patient or family member you are meeting for the first time?
Philip: I find it easy. I go into a room and introduce myself; most times people say “thank you”. It is always appreciated. If a family member says they need a nurse, I explore that further, seeing if it is something that a volunteer or aide can take care of – also to assess the urgency. If it is a need that only a nurse can fill and the nurse is delayed, I go back into the room and let the family know, just to give them some reassurance, to close the loop. If I go into a room where there is no family present, I go in and just sit with the patient, often holding his or her hand. I think that is a really important aspect of the job.
Priscilla: When I go into a room, I first introduce myself. Then I try to “read” the situation. I get better at that with experience. The confidence I have in my ability to make those assessments also comes with experience.
Do you have a favorite hospice moment you would like to share?
Philip: I have a couple. There was a patient who had been in the service; he could barely talk. At one point in the conversation, he was able to weep, saying “I miss my life”. He also said “this is the first place I have been where I have been really heard”. That really struck me and made me realize the importance of listening. The other story is of a woman whose husband had just died; she just needed to talk – and she did. After our 45 minute conversation, I asked “Are you OK?” She said “thanks to you, I am”.
Priscilla: There are 2 stories from when I worked in the home program. I had a patient who was a retired English professor who had had a stroke. At one point he asked me to get a book of poems off the shelf. He chose one and asked me to read it to him; he then asked me to analyze it. I felt a little self-conscious but I did as he asked. What I realized is that, in that situation, he was the professor and I was his student. He was once again in charge. The other was a patient who was an artist and a poet. On several occasions when I went to see her, she said “paint with me”. Some days, she was too tired or unable, but we painted together whenever she could. That went on for a year and forged a strong bond between us.
What is your favorite part of being a Hospice of Southern Maine volunteer?
Priscilla: I am enriched by hearing how people process the end of life. I love bearing witness.
Philip: Everything I do here – from patient care to folding laundry – is worthwhile. I don’t ever have to ask myself “Why am I doing this?”