Photo: Torrey DeVitto, actress, long time hospice volunteer, and NHPCO Hospice Ambassador.
Death and dying can be emotionally fraught, traumatic, and regularly occurs in fast-paced clinical settings, like hospital emergency rooms. In the Hollywood version that most of us have seen on TV, death is a dramatic, high-energy, race against time and fate. Emergency room physicians, like the one I portray [on NBC’s Chicago Med], juggle the emotional and physical twists and turns that accompany serious illnesses and injuries that have befallen our fictional patients.
But death, dying, and the end-of-life journey, in truth, are often so much more. Like birth, being with someone when they are dying is walking with them into the next phase of life. Thinking of death as a process of life makes it that much less scary. Death can be beautiful, peaceful, and spiritual. It can be without pain and procedures. It can be a process of living each day normally – surrounded by friends, family, pets and beloved pastimes – savoring the elements that make up the human experience.
When I started volunteering with hospice at just 24 years old, many of my friends and family questioned what I was doing- what would I have in common with older people? Wouldn’t the experience be sad and depressing? To the contrary. I’ve found connecting and sharing with hospice patients to be inspiring.
I’ve had the privilege of hearing honest and vulnerable stories as I sat with someone at their bedside. As individuals at the end of life face this transition, they like to share stories and give advice. I’ve come to realize too the stories they share are always about the people they’d loved and the places they’ve gone – never about professional accomplishments. I’ve also come to recognize the gift of listening is the best thing I can offer – and it has given me so much more in return.
Volunteers are crucial to hospice organizations. Nationwide, more than 300,000 people give their time and talents so that no one has to die alone. Volunteers serve as important support, so patients and families can stay connected to their “normal” lives and the things they love most. Hospice volunteers provide companionship, conversation, and help patients remain active in their daily activities – like church or social clubs. Volunteers also help provide a break for family caregivers so that they can rest from the demands of their loved one’s illness.
Although I’ve found one-on-one interactions to be the most fulfilling, not all hospice volunteers provide direct patient care. Local hospice organizations are always in need of dedicated and compassionate individuals who are willing to help with administrative support or assist by preparing meals, assisting with household chores, and running errands.
For more than 30 years, hospice care has provided Americans with options for their end-of-life care. It offers a holistic approach that treats the entire patient – not just his or her illness. It supports both the patient and the family – physically, spiritually, and emotionally – at a time when resources are depleted, and stress runs high.
Hospice can’t eliminate fear, uncertainty and drama from one of life’s most difficult circumstances- but with the ongoing support of dedicated volunteers – it can provide a happy, fulfilling denouement better than any Hollywood ending.
Torrey DeVitto, is currently starring in the television drama, Chicago Med, on NBC. She has been NHPCO’s first official Hospice Ambassador since 2007. In 2013 she was awarded the Buchwald Spirit Award for her efforts to raise awareness of hospice and the important role of volunteering.