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Hospice offers simple comforts
Volunteers help patients make the most out of their lives
Carol Jewell, volunteer coordinator of Hospice of Northeast Georgia Medical Center, lies in a bed as volunteers Linda Snowden, left, and Barbara Griffeth practice changing her position during a training session Wednesday. Registered nurse Mary Quarles, the clinical educator for NGMC, helps direct.

Hospice of Northeast Georgia Medial Center
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Carol Jewell, the volunteer coordinator at Hospice of Northeast Georgia Medical Center, could talk for days about her 20-plus years in hospice care. When she discusses what her volunteers really do, one particular anecdote comes to mind.

An elderly man in hospice’s care was having an increasingly difficult time being homebound. As a former social butterfly, the confining circumstances weren’t sitting well with him.

“He had been a very social person, a leader of industries in his career, and one of the things that (the hospice volunteers) started doing for him was something just very simple,” Jewell said.

On any day with good weather, hospice volunteers started rolling the old man’s wheelchair out onto his porch.

“On the deck, he could wave to the neighbors, he could talk to the neighbors, they would stop and see him,” Jewell said. “It changed the world for this man.”

The small gesture might not sound like much for those with a healthy body, but for anyone who has dealt with a loved one’s decline, it’s little actions that make all the difference in a person’s twilight hours.

For Hospice of NEGMC, volunteers supply those little life-altering actions.

“You think about what do volunteers do for hospice, it’s something simple like that, and yet it means so much,” Jewell said.

Life-and-death situations

Focusing on the simple things in life is one part of hospice’s goal.

While the volunteers deal with intense situations of death, most patients are focused on life,

Jewell said.

“They know they have a limited amount of life, and so they really want to do as much as possible and be as involved as possible,” she said.

The organization, however, does not gloss over the topic of death. By definition, hospice care focuses on providing comfort and support, both emotional and practical, to the chronically or terminally ill.

Comforting those who are dying is what Hospice of NEGMC is all about.

“It’s hard to talk about dying and facing those things,” Jewell said, adding the topic of death makes it difficult to recruit volunteers.

“One of the things we find out in the community is people are very afraid of hospice,” Jewell said.

One of the biggest hurdles of Jewell’s job — which she describes as a “job where it doesn’t feel like a job” — is helping the public and potential volunteers understand hospice care isn’t a death sentence for patients. It also is not all doom and gloom for the individuals who comfort patients.

Hospice volunteers perform every service from making home visits to creating mementos for family members to working in an office.

Jewell points to past patients who have utilized hospice services to make a final trip to the beach or fulfill their dreams by completing “bucket list” activities. None of the activities could be accomplished without the staff and volunteers, proving the experience is ultimately uplifting.

“It really ends up being very positive,” Jewell said.

A powerful association

Jewell noted Hospice of NEGMC has recently seen an increase in younger volunteers, but a majority of volunteers fall into the same demographics: All had a loved one who received hospice care, enabling them to witness the process and its importance firsthand.

“When you look at the statistics, it said the typical volunteer is female, middle-aged, maybe retired and that probably is a little bit of the majority of ours,” Jewell said. “They want to be involved. They want to do something bigger than themselves. They want to have a purpose. They’ve had their careers, some of them, and they want to do something now that feels important. That’s what brings a lot of people here.”

Lisa Snowden, a 74-year-old Cumming resident and one of Hospice of NEGMC’s newest volunteers, fits that bill perfectly.

Snowden’s husband died of lung cancer in 1998. He died at home thanks to the care of hospice workers. Having benefitted from it firsthand, Snowden knows the value of hospice work.

“What I would have done without (hospice volunteers) I have no idea,” Snowden said. “They just made it easier. It wasn’t easy, but they made it easier for me to do the things I needed to do and keep my sanity.”

Snowden now hopes to volunteer with Hospice of NEGMC by making the same home visits that made her experience with her husband’s death more bearable.

“For me, it’s payback time,” Snowden said. “It’s payback. I can do it.”

Gainesville resident Barbara Griffeth also knows what the value of hospice care looks like up close. An oncologist’s wife, Griffeth has had a cousin, a father-in-law and a father who died after benefitting from hospice care. She said hospice enabled her father to receive medical attention at home instead of making frequent trips to the doctor. The service also allowed her cousin to take a final trip to the beach.

“I fully believe in the hospice concept of living until you are here no more, and I think that they do a really good job of enabling that,” the 54-year-old Griffeth said. “I want to be a part of that on the giving back end.”

On giving back

While hospice volunteers often “get more out of it than (they) put into it,” Griffeth said, the position is not without its pitfalls.

“(The most challenging aspect) is becoming very attached to the people,” Snowden said. “They’re in hospice; you know they’re going to die, but nevertheless it still it hurts. It’s not fun to see somebody die and all of that.”

Connecting with patients and families during their most difficult period of life can also be a challenge.

“One of the most difficult (aspects) is just making the initial contact, to go into an unusual setting or just a new setting and feel out the patient, the family, and figure out what that’s about,” Griffeth said.

But that’s one challenging aspect that can become the most rewarding. Oftentimes volunteers don’t forge a relationship with just the hospice patients, but their families as well.

“I have, for instance, a (Stephen Curtis Chapman) song that hangs on my wall that one of my patients’ daughters gave me,” Griffeth said. “It’s about friends, and it’s just one of the sweetest things. I run into her every once in a while, and I just love her.”

Even when dealing with such heavy issues, by no means do the detractors outweigh the highlights.

“To have a meaningful interjection in somebody’s life when they need something is just great,” Griffeth said.

A matter of the heart

In addition to dispelling the myths surrounding hospice, Jewell and her volunteers work to help other potential volunteers find what aspect of hospice would work best for them.

“I would say you really need to search your heart,” Snowden said. “(Hospice) is not for everybody. I just talked to somebody this morning who said ‘I could never do (hospice),’ and a lot of people should not do (hospice).”

While providing extended home care is not for the faint-hearted, Hospice of NEGMC offers a bevy of volunteer opportunities.

Sewing projects, woodworking projects and “birthday bags” are just a few of the things done on “project days” — a monthly volunteer meet-up that Jewell encourages all new volunteers to attend. Volunteers can sew memory bears, which are stuffed bears made out of a loved one’s clothing.

Most younger volunteers also chose to work Camp Braveheart, Hospice of NEGMC’s summer day camp for children and teens who’ve lost a loved one.

Cosmetology, vigil care, counseling and office work are all areas in which qualified individuals can volunteer. Jewell and Snowden recommend newcomers first volunteer in the organization’s office before diving into home care visits.

“Get your feet wet,” Snowden said. “Do the office, that kind of thing. Gradually get in like you go into a swimming pool, a little bit at a time. Search your heart first.”

Especially when it comes to having recently lost a loved one — the event that prompts so many to volunteer with hospice — Snowden recommends taking it slow.

“I don’t think (within) three years (of my husband’s death) I was even ready to do it yet,” Snowden said. “It takes time.”

A focus on life

While volunteering with hospice is no easy task — volunteers must attend several training sessions before they can assist patients — the work is worth the reward.

Whether it is by making home visits, sewing memory bears, fixing a patient’s hair or making phone calls, the volunteers provide simple yet essential aid to patients who need it more than anyone else.

“We talked a lot in our training program about the terminology of hospice, and how it really is a transition to another phase of life,” Griffeth said. “Being a part of that, to enable someone to live fully, to live comfortably at home, to be surrounded by their family, their whole end-of-life process and just being a part of that, it really is a positive experience.”