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A needed respite for caretakers of hospice patients

How do you feel when someone entrusts you to watch over a dying family member?

The first time Fran Hammond had to do that, it was “a little bit unnerving.”

That was back in 2011 when Hammond started volunteering in PeaceHealth Southwest’s respite program. While unnerved, Hammond had training for respite care, knew her limitations — and knew whom to call if the patient needed immediate help.

Ever since that visit eight years ago, Hammond said, being a respite volunteer has been one of the most fulfilling experiences of her life. As part of the respite program, Hammond volunteers four hours each week with a hospice patient.

Volunteers are generally paired with the same hospice patient or patients through their end of life. There are currently 40 respite volunteers, and there is a need for more, according to Jennifer Linde and Annie Hansen, volunteer coordinators with PeaceHealth.

Volunteers provide respite to a hospice patient’s main caretaker by relieving them for four hours. Hammond said patients open up to respite volunteers “in a different way than they would to anyone else,” given the nature of the relationship.

“You find the most honest kind of relationship you will ever experience in your life,” Hammond said. “There’s no room for pretense. You’re dying, and I’ve never experienced any other kind of relationship any time in my life as I have with hospice patients. I find that really rewarding.”

A previous experience with hospice changed Hammond’s view of death, and spurred her to volunteer with PeaceHealth, she said. Hammond’s father died when she was 10, which made her fearful of death. But later in life, Hammond’s aunt used hospice at the end of her life. Hammond said seeing the process of hospice and dying made her more comfortable with the idea of death.

“We kind of fill that void for people who are in the dying process,” Hammond said. “They’re scared. We all would be. For me, I had a fear of death personally, and so it wasn’t until I went through the experience with my aunt that I realized it wasn’t a scary thing. Our relationship with that person brings them comfort because they feel they can confide in us.”

Rhonda Hurt, who has been a respite volunteer since 2012, said she loves her hospice patient’s stories. She said she’s benefited from the experience. Hurt and Hammond said they get more out of volunteering than the hospice patient.

Hurt, who had a career in physical therapy before volunteering, said a volunteer should be good at listening, compassionate and nonjudgmental.

“There are so many situations out there in the community you don’t see. So many people who could benefit from the assistance,” Hurt said. “It’s almost like they’re in the shadows. We go through our daily lives and we don’t realize all the different ways we could be of service.”

Hurt spends four hours a week with 74-year-old Battle Ground resident Marcy Phillips. They have paired for two years now, a rare amount of time for someone to be on hospice. Since they met, Hurt and Phillips have become good friends.

“We just clicked,” Phillips said.

Phillips joked that she goes everywhere with her husband, Bill, so it’s nice for Hurt to provide a break for him.

“We needed somebody to come sit with me while he goes out and get groceries and run errands. He did not want to leave me alone,” Phillips said.

While you can build great relationships in the program, it can be emotionally trying when you have to say goodbye to a patient before they die. Hammond said you always know the situation going in, but it “still hurts like heck” in your heart when someone dies. Hammond recalled watching a 48-year-old woman with Lou Gehrig’s disease die with dignity, as Hammond put it. The woman constantly needed assistance with “every bodily need,” Hammond said, but she still kept a smile on her face.

Hammond was called to visit the woman before she died, and even though she was in a heavy sleep state when Hammond arrived, she still mustered a smile for her.

“To experience that, with how that works, end of life. How we all go through that process because we all will,” Hammond said. “It’s a teaching moment you incorporate into your life’s experiences. Those are things you never forget, and it makes you a better person.”

To volunteer

What: Volunteer training for the PeaceHealth respite program.

When: 6:30-8:30 p.m. July 10.

Where: PeaceHealth Southwest Hospice Bereavement Office, 5400 MacArthur Blvd., Vancouver.

Information: Call 360-696-5069 or email with questions. Prior registration is required.


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