Putting the spotlight on volunteers - 'the heart of hospice'

Posted: Wednesday, June 30, 2004

As a nonprofit agency, Hospice and Home Care of Juneau relies on the energy and generosity of donors and volunteers, and though it sounds like a cliché, volunteers truly are "the heart of hospice." One volunteer with a particularly big heart and an astonishing amount of energy is Debbie Sis.

Debbie moved to Juneau six years ago from southern California. Debbie's husband was looking for new job opportunities and their search led them to Bartlett Regional Hospital and a new life in Alaska. Debbie worked for Red Cross as their Health Director for a little over two years before becoming a real estate agent.

Debbie's interest in hospice work grew out of her personal experience with loss. Her grandfather died suddenly when Debbie was twenty-one, and she was the primary caregiver for both her parents through long illnesses. Debbie also helped support her grandmother, who died three weeks after her mother's death. One of Debbie's biggest challenges, though, was supporting the man she considered her mentor when he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2002. "Mr. Soos was my eighth-grade teacher and we'd remained lifelong friends. We decided I would be with him when he died, and though I knew it would be hard, I wanted to show him that I had learned the lessons he'd taught me. As he passed, I played a tape of his wife, now deceased, playing the piano for him and I read aloud from "The Prophet" by Kahlil Gibran, one of his favorite books. The hospice chaplain commented on the strength and purity of our connection and urged me to contact my local hospice and become a volunteer."

Debbie completed the HHCJ volunteer training in October 2002. She told me that the training was one of her most important life experiences. "To me, knowledge is peace. And even though I've had a lot of experience with loss, I feel like I was winging it before the training. I know I did the best I could with my parents, but I would have done things a lot differently had I had the proper training. I continue to reflect on the hospice training and use the skills I learned in all aspects of my life."

Debbie has spent time with three hospice patients since becoming a volunteer. One moved out of state, the other two were discharged from hospice care. Debbie continues her relationship with both of them. It's not surprising that her hospice patients began to thrive when Debbie entered their lives. She is utterly dependable and absolutely faithful in her commitment. She arrives at people's houses with "homemade" cookies (Debbie's baking skills are probably her only deficit), and cases of Ensure. She also arrives with unconditional love and a great sense of humor, a truly healing combination.

I worked with Debbie when I was the HHCJ volunteer coordinator, and was constantly amazed by how often she said yes to my requests. I asked her how she found the time in light of her demanding job and family responsibilities. She replied, "My hospice work is what I do for myself. I know it sounds unconventional, but it is how I relax. I can be having a frustrating day at work - arguments about who will pay for a ceiling fan - but after visiting my hospice patient I feel better. I regain my perspective on what's important. Hospice is my number-one priority, and everyone knows it. If money wasn't an issue I would go back to school, become a social worker, and work for Hospice for free."

I believe her.

Debbie has been involved with many HHCJ fundraisers and has participated in the annual Remembrance Gathering. In October 2003, Debbie attended our volunteer facilitator training for the children's grief support program and co-facilitated our first kid's group. Now Debbie is making a financial contribution, Wells Fargo Home Mortgage is donating $300 to HHCJ every time Debbie closes on a house through Wells Fargo.

At the end of our telephone interview I asked Debbie if there was anything in particular she wanted me to say in this article. Her answer was not surprising, "I just want people to know how great Hospice and Home Care is. I want them to know that death is not about negativity and that being with people who are sick is not depressing. Of course it's sad sometimes, but it's not something to be afraid of. Everything about this work is positive and life-affirming."

• Mary Cook is a volunteer with Hospice and Home Care of Juneau, a program of Catholic Community Service. CCS serves all persons regardless of their faith.

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