Volunteer Programs Designed to Support Cancer Patients at the Very End of Life

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Many patients have no family available to sit with them in their final hours. Volunteers can help.
Many patients have no family available to sit with them in their final hours. Volunteers can help.

With so many ways to volunteer our time, few people would think sitting with a dying patient is right up there at the top the list. Yet it is for many people. Hospital staff throughout the United States are aware that patients benefit from the presence of another person throughout their hospitalizations, and even more so at the very end of life. However, many patients are in situations in which no one is available to sit with them in their final hours.

A patient may not have relatives living nearby or any relatives at all. Or a patient's death may be imminent, but the family member who is sitting with the patient is unable to stay. The situation may be that no one knows that a loved one is hospitalized or that the patient is near death.  Two programs that address these types of situations are “No One Dies Alone” (NODA) and the “Vanderbilt Vigil Volunteers” (V3).

No One Dies Alone

NODA was conceived by Sandra Clarke, RN, a nurse at Sacred Heart Medical Center in Eugene, Oregon. A patient close to death asked her to stay with him, but she had to tend to other patients on the floor. When she was finally able to get back to the dying man, she saw that he had passed away alone. The experience inspired her to address the problem of patients dying alone. Her solution became “No One Dies Alone,” and since its conception in 2001, NODA has been adopted by many medical centers throughout the country.1

No One Dies Alone is volunteer-based, using an Internet site for volunteers to sign-up. Potential program volunteers must sign a confidentiality agreement, submit to a background check, and undergo current tuberculosis testing. The volunteers, referred to as Compassionate Companions, agree to be available for 1 week at a time and are called in by phone or email when a patient needs a companion. Some hospitals require volunteers to stay with a patient for 2 or 3 hours, although most stay as long as necessary during their week. Overnight shifts are usually longer.

When a patient is within 72 to 48 hours of death and has no loved one available, the physician notifies the nursing supervisor or chaplain, who relays the information to the NODA coverage coordinator. The notification process is established and soon a Compassionate Companion is on the way to the dying patient's bedside. 

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