Volunteer comforts those near the end of life

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By George Basler and Connie McKinney

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Kathy Pfaffenbach has volunteered at Mercy House of the Southern Tier since it opened. She helps provide comfort and care to terminally ill patients.

Kathy Pfaffenbach can understand how some people don’t want to think about the issue of death and dying.

But three days a week, the 64-year-old Binghamton woman confronts this reality up close and personal as a volunteer at Mercy House of the Southern Tier — the first home for the terminally ill in Broome and Tioga counties.

She considers it a privilege, not a burden. “Death is so private and personal. I feel humbled that (the residents) allow me to become part of their daily lives,” she said.

Pfaffenbach began volunteering the first day the nonprofit community care facility opened in early March. She’s one of more than 200 volunteers — along with three full-time and seven part-time staff members — who staff the Endicott facility 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

One of Mercy House’s core missions is ensuring “nobody dies alone,” and volunteers are essential in fulfilling this mission, said Amy Roma, director of resident care. They cook, they clean and they help residents with personal care. Just as importantly, they sit with residents, providing companionship and caring as the terminally ill reach the end of their lives.

“So far, we’ve had six residents die, and nobody’s died alone,” Roma said, with a touch of pride.

Pfaffenbach started volunteering eight months after retiring as supervisor of emergency services for Catholic Charities of Broome County. In that capacity, she helped provide in emergencies and directed two food pantries that served some 5,000 people each month.

“That was a feel-good job. When you unlocked the building in the morning, you knew you were going to make a difference in someone’s life,” she said.

She found she missed working with people after spending 27 years with the agency and was looking for something to fill her days.

“Retirement’s not what it’s cracked up to be,” she said, with a laugh. “How many times can you clean your house?”

Sitting home gets old fast if you don’t have a purpose to get up in the morning, but Mercy House provided that purpose. “It’s a way for the whole community to embrace a person as they make their next step into eternal life,” Pfaffenbach said.

The facility, which opened after several years of planning and fund raising, is in the former St. Casimir’s Church, at 212 N. McKinley Ave. in Endicott. Modeled on a similar facility in Syracuse, the 10-bed home will serve patients who have been diagnosed in the last months, or weeks, of their lives and can no longer stay in their own homes.

The facility is bright and airy, with a lounge area for residents and their families, and a nondenominational chapel. Staff work to make it as close to home as possible, Roma said, including personal touches. When a resident dies, staff place a rose and prayer card on the bed so friends and family can spend a moment remembering the person.

Organizers call it a leap of faith. The annual cost for Mercy House is about $600,000 a year and will be paid mostly by donations and fundraising.

As a volunteer, Pfaffenbach spends two days a week helping to made breakfast for residents. The third day, she works as a caregiver, doing a variety of jobs. She takes residents to the bathroom,brings them to the dining room or simply sits with a resident. Sometimes they talk; sometimes she just provides quiet comfort.

“Kathy is a great volunteer. You can tell when she comes in that she loves the residents. She’s here for all the right reasons,” Roma said.

Pfaffenbach’s first job at Catholic Charities was working in the pregnancy and foster care program, she said. She saw the beginning of life, and now she’s seeing its end.

The most challenging thing about this work is seeing a relationship end when someone dies, she acknowledged. Residents become part of the fabric of your life, but fabric wears out, she said. Still, it’s always replace it with another thread, Pfaffenbach added quickly

Every time she walks into Mercy House, she feels a sense of peace and tranquility. Some deaths are easy and some are hard, but when you see them as the next step into eternal life, it’s not fearful, she said.

“I’m here to give comfort,” she emphasized.

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