Heart of the Treasure Valley: Volunteers offer compassionate companionship for those who would die alone

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BY KATHERINE JONES

Margaret Leahy sits quietly beside a hospital bed, holding the hand of a dying woman. She knows her name, but that’s about all and — it is enough. Margaret talks quietly to the woman, breathes a prayer, strokes her hair, dampens her lips.

Margaret Leahy, 75, is part of a group of volunteers committed to the belief that no one should die alone — that’s the name of their group. Working at Saint Alphonsus hospital, they sit with patients at the end of their life who have no one else who can be with them. “There are people who don’t (have anyone else) and they deserve to have somebody there,” says Margaret. “It’s just being a presence, really, just being there. … Sometimes it’s just holding their hand or stroking their head or taking care of their mouth that gets all dry.” Here Margaret, a member of Sacred Heart Catholic Church, sits in their memorial garden.

For whatever reason, the woman has no family or friends to be with her in the last hours of her life. But she has Margaret, along with a small group of hospital volunteers, who will take turns being by her side until she dies.

She says: “Compassionate companionship …

“These people are at the end of their lives, but they have a whole story and history behind them. And I may not know (the story), but they have a life that deserves respect.”

This person might be a transient, just passing through, or had an accident far from home. Or be someone alienated from family, or an elderly person with an elderly spouse who can’t be at the hospital. All of them perfect strangers.

“They’re not. They’re family. …

“You’re able to be with somebody in one of the most critical moments of their life. There’s birth and there’s death. And there’s usually a lot of people around the birth and not too many people around the death. …

“It’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.”

Margaret is part of an all-volunteer group called No One Dies Alone, a national organization with local chapters where people are moved to create them. The nucleus of this group is a partnership between Saint Alphonsus Hospital and members of Sacred Heart parish, begun 10 years ago by Mary Fran Brown.

When death is imminent for someone without family, usually 48 to 72 hours more or less, nurses will contact the chaplain who sets into motion a beeper and subsequent phone calls to the small pool of 20 or 25 volunteers who will come in four-hour shifts around the clock. Margaret is one of the relief coordinators.

“You’re not always the one there when they die (it is someone else who is) but all the volunteers feel the same way: It is a wonderful gift that we’ve been given to be able to do this.

“ … It’s a gift to me, but it’s also a gift I can give to them.”

Everyone volunteers for different reasons, and Margaret’s are many. She knew from a young age that she wanted to be a nurse, and over the years, there have been many people who have died while she was working.

“They have not been ignored, but you’re in with them, you walk out — and they die. Or you go care for someone else, come back half an hour later — and they die. So I’ve seen people that have had nobody with them.”

Among the deaths in her own family, Margaret has been able to care for one sister. But she wasn’t able to be with her parents, another sister, her brother or sister-in-law when they died. She had been with them and then had to come home; other people were with them at their deaths.

“So I think it’s kind of a way of giving back.”

On just her third day on the hospital floor as a young nursing student, Margaret went into the room of a heart patient.

“He starts, as I now know, having chest pains. The dear nuns were very sweet; they felt I was young, so they had me leave the room. So I wasn’t in the room. … I’ve often felt that’s another reason I’ve been drawn to this work: because I couldn’t be there for him.”

When it’s their turn, volunteers check in with the volunteer office and the nursing staff and then go to the room. Most of their people are unconscious or semi-conscious.

“They say hearing is the last to go and they hear voices, they feel touch. So we hold hands, we talk. …

“I read a great article years ago that struck me. It said, ‘Even when you’re dying, you’re living.’ It’s a much more positive aspect to look at that. (Death has) become something you don’t fear.”

Margaret might read out loud or read to herself; she might say rosaries out loud or silent prayers, depending on the person’s religious preference. When she was with her sister, she knitted.

“It’s being the presence there, letting them know they’re not alone. It’s a very sacred time to be there. It’s sacred because it’s so real.”

One time, Margaret was sitting by the bed, holding hands with a woman. A nurse, a friend of Margaret’s, came by to check on both of them and they were talking softly across the bed.

“We both … looked down and she had very quietly passed away. And I thought, you know, that’s not a bad way to go, with people right beside you, talking, so you know you’re not alone. … A feeling of connectedness.

“(A peaceful death) — that’s what we wish for everybody. It doesn’t always happen, but when it can … There’s so much un-peaceful death in the world, it’s nice to be able to see that somebody does have one.”

The services that No One Dies Alone provides are for people of any or no denomination, but Margaret’s volunteering comes from a place of deep faith.

“Visit the imprisoned, visit the sick. Care for the sick, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless; take care of those that are in need — and these are people who are in need.

“That’s where my faith is coming from, caring for another in whatever way you can. It’s so integral, it’s so hard to put into words. …

“There are a lot of volunteers who are doing it to simply be of service to another human being — another type of faith.”

Margaret is also on the Board of Directors for Friendship Clinic, a free medical clinic on Latah Street, and is one of the clinic managers. She also does home visits for St. Vincent de Paul and does faith-based community nursing at Sacred Heart. Her husband, Rick Leahy, is a volunteer at Corpus Christi House.

“It’s a need to give. …

“If you had asked me at 25 (years old) what I thought I’d be doing at 75, I think I would have said I would be happy to be alive. But … I often just seem to step into things and, it seems, I seem to fill a need and it seems to fill a need in me.

“Maybe it helps me become a little bit more complete, a little more whole, a little less egocentric. …

“I always wanted to be a nurse (and) I’m still a nurse. I thought the other day: This is ridiculous at my age. But I know a lot of nurses who are older than I am that are still going. Maybe that’s it. (Volunteering) keeps you involved in life. Or death. …”

Margaret realizes that the volunteering she does isn’t for everybody. One of her daughters, for instance, works in an office in Minneapolis. On a recent Thursday, the daughter gave blood; on Friday, she tutored refugees; on Saturday, she fed the homeless.

“Her skills (are not nursing) but she still feels the need to go out and help. I think a lot of people want to help and try a lot of different things before the thing that really fits them comes along. I think that’s OK. Everything (you do) gives you a different perspective.”

And age has little to do with anything. When she retired, Margaret joked to an older friend that now she was an elder.

“(My friend) said, ‘I’m an elder, Joe’s an elder, Ellen’s an elder. You are an elder-in-training.’ I thought, ‘I can do that.’ (When I retired) at 65, you tend to think, well, this is it — and it’s not. (Life) goes on and on and if you look at it as an elder-in-training, then you have a job. …

“It’s nice to know I can keep growing at my age. You don’t think about it, but you do (keep growing). Sometimes faster, I think, than when you were younger.”

Sometimes, Margaret will be with someone when they die.

“(I say), ‘Goodbye. You’re free to go.’ I usually say a prayer.

“The staff has procedures to follow (and) one time there was a nurse and a student nurse when this lady died. Or gentleman, I can’t remember. The nurse said (to the student), ‘You just stay here while I go do this.’ I could tell the poor girl was just really not comfortable.

“I finally said, ‘You know you really don’t have to stay here.’ I said, ‘I’m OK. I’m not afraid to be alone with them.’

“You don’t learn that young, you learn that as you grow, and it’s not (at all) fearful.”

Margaret will stay for a while longer in the hospital room.

“I guess I don’t think about it as they’re going to heaven. You want them to go to peace, to go wherever they want to go — back into the universe, whatever. At that point, it’s their individual destiny.

“For me, it’s just … being able to be there for somebody. So they’re not alone.

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