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SUNY Upstate volunteer a companion for the dying

Being there when you're needed the most

When Renae Rokicki became a volunteer for the End of Life Companion (EOLC) program at SUNY Upstate Medical University, she said she felt it was meant to be: the program's inception coincided almost exactly with the first anniversary of her father's passing.

"My father died three years ago of a long-term, debilitating condition," Rokicki said. "His final time was spent in my home with the support of Hospice and my family. This experience significantly impacted me and made me realize how important support is during a difficult time -- both for the dying individual and the caregivers."

EOLC is a program that was set up so no one has to die alone. It offers respite for family members; comfort to those who have few friends, family or support in their lives; and assistance for families who live out of town. It was initiated by a medical student who, when stopping in to see a terminal patient, was distressed to learn that he had died alone just moments before. Palliative Care Coordinator Patricia Knox formed a steering committee to set up the program, and one year later, the 350-bed University Hospital was set up to give support and comfort to those who are imminently dying (the last 24 to 48 hours of life).

"The role of the volunteer is to help the individual in being as comfortable and peaceful as possible," said Rokicki, adding that this typically involves playing soothing music, providing a soft voice, praying with them or simply holding their hand. "Most times the patient is unconscious and unable to interact or respond to us by the time we volunteer with them. Therefore, the assistance we provide is to keep them company and provide support to them, any family or staff."

Rokicki works at SUNY Upstate as a training and development specialist, which is a non-clinical position. Her desire to assist with the program stems from her background in the field of human services and developmental disabilities: "I miss the opportunity to care directly for people," she said.

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