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I promised I would write more about my experiences at the Palliative Care Congress and though it’s been more than the few promised days since I last wrote, I’m determined to document a few of the amazing sessions I attended.

Although I typically seek out sessions on volunteer issues, this time I decided to branch out and seek out sessions on palliative care for underserved population. The first such session was on palliative care during humanitarian crises. Even the title boggled my mind. What must it be like to provide palliative care in the midst of the chaos of war, conflict, forced evacuation?

In the first paper, Dr. Anna Voeuk from the University of Alberta talked about her experiences working in an emergency field hospital in Northern Iraq. Voeuk’s passionate presentation documented the range of crises health care workers faced and the need to triage incoming cases with those who could not be saved being given the designation of black, as workers turned their attention to the cases that might benefit from their care. Voeuk added that her field hospital had decided that no one would be left to die alone – a staff members, ranging from cleaners to physicians, would take turns sitting with a dying person until they passed, a moving example of humanity even in the face of war and mass casualties.

Dr. Voeuk also talked about the need for resilience, flexibility, and creative problem solving in order to meet the needs of their patients. Lacking essential medications and equipment, physicians would improvise to set broken limbs, control pain, and fight infection.

Equally inspiring was the presentation by Dr. Megan Doherty, a pediatric palliative care physician  at Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) and Ottawa’s Roger Neilson House, who  served for three years in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bengladesh. Doherty described the conditions among the 919,000 Rohingya people, 60 per cent of whom are between the ages of zero and 15. Dr. Doherty continues to divide her time between her work in Ottawa and in Bengladesh, providing training and care under extremely challenging circumstances.

I would have wished for the chance to ask Drs. Voeuk and Doherty what had motivated them to offer their services to humanitarian crises, and what impact these experiences have had on their work back in Canada. The standing room only audience for their presentations was clearly as moved as I was by their contributions and dedication.

In the coming days, I’ll write about the sessions I attended on providing care for underserved populations in Canada.

In Montreal for the 22nd International Congress on Palliative Care. It’s a huge conference at Montreal’s Palais des Congres with thousands of participants from all over the world. It’s easy to get overwhelmed but the cure for that feeling is to focus on the people right around you and the stories being shared by the speakers and audience alike!

I’ll share some insights over the next couple of days. My biggest highlight so far was my chat with my hero Balfour Mount, the father of Palliative Care and founder of the conference. We met at the Hospice at May Court when he was visiting his close friend, a pioneering palliative care doctor. He remembered me and our conversation in the sunroom at the Hospice and we embraced one another. Such a remarkable man!

I was excited to see one of my favourite colleague/nurses at my last session. I look forward to a very full final day tomorrow!

A month and a half ago I wrote a blog post that I entitled “Hospice volunteers: the heart of hospice.” I didn’t invent the term – it’s one I’ve encountered countless times over the years in my research, interviews with volunteers, conversations with death professionals, and visits to residential hospices. The term doesn’t mean that volunteers are the only people who provide the heart in hospice care. Rather, it points to the unique role that volunteers can play – they are the only ones whose primary role is to simply be with dying people and their families – to listen, to sit in silence, to share a book or story, to sing a favourite song, to visit the garden.

It was that role that drew me to hospice volunteering almost 17 years ago. I can still vividly remember the evening I walked into the orientation meeting. The fact that the meeting took place on September 11, 2001 could have something to do with why that evening is etched in my mind (yes, that September 11!) but it’s also the feeling I had when I entered the building. Somehow I knew I had entered sacred space (not a term I normally used, as I described myself as the “least spiritual person I know”). But there was something about the building, the space, the people who worked there, that told me something very special was happening inside.

That feeling remained with me for many years, as I volunteered in the residence each week. Though sometimes I felt that I might not be up to the task, my experiences in caring for my sister when she was dying had taught me that dying didn’t need to be scary. Indeed, when my sister died, I was by her side, singing to her, and after she breathed her last breath, I thanked her for making it “not scary.”

I’ve carried that knowledge with me ever since. And I’ve shared it with families as I accompanied them as the person they loved was dying. I’ve sat with people as they died when family couldn’t be there. And each time I’ve considered it an honour to be with someone as they left this world. And increasingly I felt that it was what I was meant to do (another phrase I never would have uttered before I became a hospice volunteer!)

After all these years, I know that it’s what I’m meant to do. As a life coach, I work with people to help them uncover their “life purpose,” something people feel they lack in this modern world of disposable everything, including jobs. Sometimes my clients will remark upon how “lucky” I am to have found my calling with hospice.  I was none too sure it was luck that brought me to hospice – more like the benefit I got from losing my beloved sister all those years ago. But yes, I would say, I am very blessed to be a hospice volunteer.

I am saying all this by way of explanation for why I wrote that post in late June. I was feeling that what the core of hospice volunteering was getting lost in all the busyness of our shifts. And as someone for whom “hope springs eternal,” I hoped that I could help us to recapture that core. In writing what I did, I never for one minute intended to point fingers at or criticize anyone. I was trying to identify a shift I felt had happened slowly over time in the culture of the place I loved.

I’m not going to detail here what’s happened since I posted that piece in late June. Suffice it to say, it’s been one of the most devastating experiences of my life (and trust me, I’ve had a few!). In the end, I chose to resign from my volunteer role with this hospice organization. Since then, I’ve been ricocheting through what Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified as the five stages of grief, something that’s familiar to all of us in hospice work. Some days I’m bouncing between bargaining and denial. I sleep poorly, wake up remembering that I don’t have a weekly shift any more, and feel the sadness all over again.

Most days I trust that I’ll find other ways to serve dying people and their families. And in the meantime, I’m stepping up my work as a hospice palliative care activist and advocate. I’ll start visiting hospice residences that have opened since I did my original road trips a few years ago. I’ll lobby for greater access to hospice palliative care across the province and the country. And I’ll write this blog because I’m still a hospice volunteer – it’s in my heart and soul and I’ll continue to do this work wherever and whenever I can. Hospice is not a place – it’s a philosophy of care, a practice, and a way of being.

Thank you to everyone who commented on that June blog post. It meant a great deal to know I wasn’t alone. So please keep reading and sharing about the work that you do.

www.cbc.ca/news/canada/thunder-bay/thunder-bay-hospice-northwest-volunteers-diversity-1.4772724

Perhaps a tad too far for me to drive every week! I love the way they describe the role that volunteers play.

Music and sad times

Often, when I am feeling downhearted or sad, as I have for the past couple of weeks since I posted “The Heart of Hospice” message, I find myself turning to music for comfort. Music has always played an important part in my life, whether it was strumming my guitar and belting out the songs of Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs, or performing feminist songs at coffee shops and rallies in my twenties, or dancing and singing with my babies. My younger daughter studied the clarinet, and played with a sensitivity and musicality that filled the house with beautiful music for many years.

In this, the final third of my life (if I’m lucky!) I’ve taken up the ukulele, a much easier instrument to transport than my guitar, and much easier to play. I bring it along to the Kindergarten class at a local inner city school where I lead the music program once a week. And I sing at every opportunity I get, whether in the choir I joined a year and a half ago, or in the NAC pop-up choir that took place last Thursday, or in my bedroom, listening to music that touches my soul.

Today, as I faced the sadness and grief I’m feeling at a change that is dramatically affecting my life, I found myself singing along with Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, Carole King, and the music of my twenties and thirties. Sometimes I sing those songs to dying people at the hospice, as I did for my sister when she was dying 21 years ago. We shared a taste in music as we did in many things. When her best friend died of cancer not long after our mother had her brain aneurysm in 1990, Carol and I would listen to the Linda Ronstadt song, “Goodbye My Friend,” as we promised to care for one another in the years to come. (If you don’t remember or know that song, you can find it on YouTube by Googling it.)

On the day that Carol died, I sat by her bed, talking quietly and singing songs we loved. Carole King’s “You’ve got a friend” was the song I sang as she died. Singing it now carries me back to that time, and reminds me of the depth of the friendship and love we shared.

Here is the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qde5NMy7WTU

The final piece I’ve been listening to is the soundtrack from Departures, a Japanese film that is one of the most brilliant films on the subject of dying that I have ever seen. The soundtrack is beautiful, evocative, and, for me, uplifting, and I’m listening to it now as I write. Here’s the link to a review of the movie.  https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-departures-2009

I hope that you have music that touches your soul in good times and bad, in joy and in deep sorrow. Perhaps you can share your favourite here.

The National Documentary Journey Home takes you inside a groundbreaking hospice for the homeless.
— Read on www.cbc.ca/player/play/1269006915536

I heard about the plans for this Toronto Hospice last year at a conference. The work they are doing is inspiring and so important.

Another wonderful post by my favourite volunteer management site! It feels like a perfect companion to my last post on here!

volunteerplaintalk

baseball bleachers chairs close up Photo by Bahram Jamalov on Pexels.com

Niko looked down at her t-shirt that read “Children’s Zoo Volunteer.” She forgot that she still had it on. The older lady in front of her in the checkout line, had turned and smiled. “I like your shirt. Have long you volunteered there?

“Thank you.” Niko shyly replied. “It’s been about three years.”

“I take my grandkids there all the time,” the lady said as she put her groceries on the conveyor belt. “They especially love the polar bear habitat. I’m excited about the new interactive childrens’ corner. Do you know when that opens?”

Niko moved up. “I think they’ve scheduled it for this fall.”

“Maybe we’ll see you there sometime.” The lady pushed her carton of orange juice forward. “It really is a wonderful zoo.”

“It is.” Niko returned. “They do a great job, don’t they?”

Do our volunteers use the term “we”…

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