Sound Health: A program at Carle BroMenn aims to ensure no patient dies alone
It's a simple mission that guides the volunteers on the No One Dies Alone team at Carle BroMenn Medical Center.
The mission is right in the name: Make sure no one at the hospital dies alone, if it can be helped.
Right now, there are 14 people on this volunteer team, according to the hospital's Director of Medical Surgical Services, Theresa Prosser.
That means there are 14 people in the area who have agreed to be ready at a moment's notice to get the Normal hospital and be present for a dying person who may not have anyone there.
The program, called "No One Dies Alone," did not originate at Carle BroMenn; similar programs are in existence elsewhere. But Prosser said her time in medical oncology unit exposed her repeatedly to patients who were dying and didn't have family, friends or anyone local to be with them.
"At times, it was up to, staff members, nurses and chaplains to kind of fill that void for our patients," Prosser said. "When we're in the hospital, any discipline — nurse, chaplain, others — there are other things that may pull us away, we might not have consistent time to be able to be there for an extended period."
NODA started at Carle BroMenn in 2019, with the specific aim of filling that gap.
"It's probably one of the things that I'm most proud of in my nursing career, because it is a program that is such a win — in the truest sense of the word for everybody involved," Prosser said.
Volunteers agree to be available for one-to-two hours shifts at various times of day and night, on-call for when someone is needed.
Senior Chaplain Rev. Christine McNeal said she doesn't want people to think that those who need the services of a NODA volunteer are "all destitute" or that they "don't have anyone," always.
At times, she said, trauma patients arrive at the hospital from the interstate, or people have just moved to the area and didn't have a chance to get to know anyone. Perhaps a patient does have family, but the family lives far away.
"This is a great service, not only to the patients, for the families of our patients," McNeal said. It's "given great solace to them, knowing that their loved ones are being cared for."
An example: A patient arrived at the emergency room and it became clear she was nearing the end of her life, McNeal said. Her brother lived in northern Wisconsin, but the situation needed immediate attention, immediate care decisions.
"He really had some distress over what to do: Keep his sister alive until he got down here so that she wouldn't be alone in the dying process, or what?" she said. "NODA was described to him, that we would do everything we could (for her) but that we do have these volunteers to make sure someone was with her. "
The program helped the decision-making, McNeal said.
"He just wanted her to have the peace that she needed and those volunteers were able to provide that," she said.
To ask someone to sit beside a stranger is a monumental request; McNeal said all involved with NODA realize this. Potential volunteers go through a screening and pledge to take care of themselves after any dying process they help with, since, by nature, the work is existential. Volunteers are also guided on how to provide care and support to people of any faith, tradition or belief system.
Alana Reimer is one of those 14 current volunteers. Like a few others in the program, she's also had experience volunteering with hospice patients — so death, as a concept, as an event, isn't unfamiliar to her.
But what keeps her going back, she said, is that the process of leaving life is so similar in sacredness to that of entering life.
"It's not completely different than the feeling one might get when a baby is born," she said. "Once I experienced that, how meaningful (and) sacred, and knowing that, in whatever way you made a small difference for that person... as they transition out of life is just — I can't really even express it in words."
To know what to do, Reimer — or any other volunteer in the moment — may get some information for the patient's medical care team, depending on what they know.
"Then the volunteer knows, 'Oh, I can read a poem to this patient,' or 'I can play country music,' or I can do whatever," McNeal said. "But otherwise they are really wonderful at reading those, the visual cues of the patient and seeing what the patient needs."
COVID-19 and its related mitigation measures in hospital settings put the NODA program on pause at Carle BroMenn during 2020, 2021 and part of this year. Prosser said it started back up in July; so far, no one has requested a NODA volunteer.
"That means that the you know, the patients... that are dying within our walls actually have a support system, or have their own loved ones, or significant others around them," she said.
But, Prosser added, the NODA program is there to serve anyone who needs it — which means it's there to serve the families, too. A NODA volunteer can take a shift to give family members some flexibility.
"It gives them peace of mind if they need to go run an errand or go to work: Life outside of our walls doesn't stop," she said. "Or sometimes people just can't emotionally handle being present — and that's okay. All of that is okay."
Prosser said Carle Health plans to offer additional information and training for new NODA volunteers this fall. It might seem like 14 people is enough, but McNeal said they could use more help.
"If you have... more volunteers, then there's a greater percentage of getting someone," she said. "We're never going to say, 'Don't volunteer,' because when there's a need, we want to make sure that we can fill it."
To learn how to become a volunteer with the No One Dies Alone program Carle BroMenn Medical Center, please call Sue Seibring at 309- 268-5397 or visit Get Involved - Browse Volunteering Opportunities | Carle.org.