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By Suzanne Pollak @SuzannePollak
When Judy Davis visited her dying friend, a former kindergarten teacher, Davis said that her friend talked about the profound effect that her hospice volunteer work had on her life.
Davis, of Gaithersburg, remembered that discussion when she retired from her government job. She contacted a few places to see if she, too, could help those in the end stage of their lives.
Montgomery Hospice welcomed her, but “it was like applying for a job. I needed references” and three days of training, she recalled.
“The more rigor they put me through, I was drawn into it. I thought, ‘wow, this is a class act.’”
Six years after reaching out to Montgomery Hospice in Rockville, Davis received the Debra Levy Humanitarian Award from GROWS –Grass Roots Organization for the Well-being of Seniors, for her 2,000 hours volunteering with Montgomery Hospice on Dec. 6.
“I can’t think of a better way to spend your retirement,” Davis said. “The people who I have visited, I have learned so much about what is important to them. It really helps me live my life in a better way.”
Davis struggled to put into words “what an honor, what a privilege it is to be invited into one’s life when they are so vulnerable,” she said. “I just can’t think of any better honor. I get so much more back than I give.”
Through her six years of volunteer work, Davis has had many special moments. She recalled the woman who shared “the most phenomenal discussions about life, death and work,” and why the woman’s wish to be euthanized was not possible.
Another person “was very annoyed with me,” because Davis didn’t know a particular Catholic prayer in Spanish. But Davis cared enough to learn the prayer, although she is not Catholic and doesn’t speak Spanish.
“Here are these people at the end stage of life, and they should be able to get what they want,” Davis said.
She also recalled the woman whom the volunteer choir “sang her out” during her last moments.
Davis smiled when she thought about her rich volunteer experiences, and joked that her coworkers from her career with the federal government would barely recognize her.
“I was all business,” back then, negotiating contracts, she said.
Davis is one of 350 volunteers at Montgomery Hospice, most of whom visit patients. Often the visits involve small talk, handholding or even quiet time. Other times, volunteers perform massages, bring along a pet or offer aromatherapy. Still other times, the volunteer is there to relieve a caregiver.
Many of the people who turn to Montgomery Hospice will be gone within days, sometimes just hours. Two-thirds of them die within two weeks, said Monica Escalante, chief communications officer.
They are eligible for hospice once they have been told their life expectancy is six months or less, she said.
Christiane Wiese, director of volunteer services and complementary therapies, noted that some patients want no visits at all; others just find comfort when a caring person stops by, and still others find it easier to share their fears and concerns with a stranger.
“Somebody is touching them with loving care. It means a lot,” said Wiese.
Volunteers, who undergo background checks and three days of training, may also offer bedside singing. Both Davis and Wiese participate in the Threshold Choir. In groups of two to four people, the volunteers go to the person’s bedside and sing hymns, holiday melodies or whatever the patient requests.
While lullabies and oldies are popular, choir members often must determine what they believe would be the best songs for a particular patient, said Davis, who is the choir director.
Montgomery Hospice currently assists 450 patients “wherever they call home,” Escalante said.
More volunteers are needed, she said. And even if the experience doesn’t work out, they learn important information to use when their own loved one is dying, Escalante said.
The nonprofit has 13 physicians, 150 nurses, many nurses’ assistants and social workers, and a few chaplains, she said. The nurses are available 24-7.
Montgomery Hospice also operates Casey House, the only all-hospice, acute-care inpatient facility in the County.