AUSTIN, Texas - (April 10, 2013) - For Jill Crocker, it started a few years ago with her father. She considered herself fortunate to be by his side, along with her ailing mother, both holding his hands as he passed away. Fourteen months later, she was with her mother as she took her last breath.
She heard about the No One Dies Alone program at Seton Medical Center Austin (SMCA) and University Medical Center Brackenridge (UMCB) from a friend as she was approaching her retirement in September 2012 after a career in the Texas Legislature.
"I knew it was something I wanted to do. I've been there. I have often said, 'When I don't have to work anymore, I want to volunteer my time to people who need me. I want my life to make a difference. I want my life to matter.'"
Another friend reminded Crocker of the countless hours she had spent at her parents' bedsides and wondered why she would want to do something that seemed so morbid, sad and depressing.
But Crocker was thinking about the hours when she wasn't bedside. Once, she was at a family wedding in Kyle when her father took a turn for the worse and she raced back to Austin.
But when she got to his room at SMCA, she found a volunteer with him, talking to him, reassuring him that Crocker was en route.
"I loved that lady! She stayed with him, knowing that he was nervous and scared. She was an angel in my eyes. It might have been only a few hours, but to my dad it was an eternity and this precious stranger was a lifesaver to both of us," Crocker said.
"I don't think anyone wants to be around death, but I look at it as helping a family. I look at the entire picture - not just the person I am sitting with, but also that person's family. I know how much it meant to me having somebody sit with my dad," she said.
No One Dies Alone started in Oregon in 2001, when a dying man asked a nurse to sit with him. She promised to do so once she completed her rounds, but when the nurse returned, the man was dead. She resolved to enlist volunteers to stay with patients who were close to death. Her program was a success and later spread to other hospitals around the country.
At SMCA and UMCB, Palliative Care Chaplain Liz Powell trains and schedules volunteers for three-hour shifts to be with patients who are beyond recovery. Seton's NODA program was launched in April 2009 at UMCB and began operating in earnest a year later. The program expanded to SMCA in June 2010.
In some cases, these patients may have just a single relative locally who can't sit bedside continuously or indefinitely because they need to work, take care of children or meet other demands. Other times, these patients have no family within driving distance - or no family at all.
Marty Land, a retired veterinary assistant and church pre-school teacher, volunteers for "late shifts" - either midnight to 3 a.m. or 3 a.m. to 6 a.m. She sat with a patient on Christmas Eve and she stayed until the very early hours of Christmas morning, when another volunteer took over for her.
So far, she has sat with eight patients, two of whom died while she was there.
"I feel like we have been given a very sacred trust to be with people as their souls leave them. I know, for me, I am in the presence of something so sacred at that time, I cannot describe it," Land said.
No One Dies Alone volunteers are encouraged to talk to patients, even if the patients are unresponsive. Chaplain Powell provides each volunteer with a bag for her or his assigned patient that honors what Powell knows about - and can be comforting to - each patient. Typical items include a Bible, prayers, music and books particular to each patient's beliefs, preferences and interests.
"I think the last sense they lose can be hearing, so I just talk to them," said Frankie Wright, a retired, 28-year SMCA labor and delivery nurse.
She heard one patient was a basketball fan, so Wright read him a newspaper story about the San Antonio Spurs.
Wright wasn't sure she could sit with dying patients, but decided to give it a try about a year ago. When she sat with her first patient, "I leaned over, took his hand and said I was his angel going with him on his last trip."
Many of the No One Dies Alone volunteers are retirees whose spouses have passed away. An exception is Ian McCafferty, 25, who is studying screenwriting but has made time over the past several months to sit with five dying patients.
"This gives me perspective about myself and my life. It gives me the opportunity to play a role that is demanding and requires that I be present for someone else," McCafferty said. "It's very, very rewarding. I don't see myself leaving the program anytime soon."
"It gives me a sense of peace, knowing I hopefully am helping someone get to the other side and die in a peaceful manner," said Kathy Maurer, a retired high-tech executive. "It's just a blessing to me. It's a calling and I get so much out of it.
"It's not for everyone. I was kind of leery at first," Maurer said. "But once I sat with my first patient, I knew I belonged there."