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Hospice panel

Everett Jones introduces himself during a training for new hospice volunteers at RiverStone Health on Friday. Jones and the rest of the panel are volunteers RiverStone Health Hospice brought in to share their experiences with end-of-life care. They are, from left to right, Penny Brabec, Beth Krkosa, Jones, Kris Decker and Beth Emard.

TAILYR IRVINE Billings Gazette

A panel of six RiverStone Health Hospice volunteers shared their experiences of working with the dying Friday, and though they came to the experience in different ways, many echoed the same thought.

“It’s always very rewarding," Beth Emard said during a training for new hospice volunteers. “You come away with much more than you ever give.”

Ten people took part in the two-day training. They will join the ranks of the more than 115 volunteers who work with patients, families and staff both in patients’ homes and RiverStone Health’s Hospice Home.

The timing of the training was apt. April 15 to 21 is National Healthcare Volunteer Week.

The hospice has been in the community since 1980, said Roxanne Allen, the program’s supervisor. It started out primarily as a volunteer organization until Congress mandated hospice benefits for Medicare.

Once the hospice was Medicare-certified, Allen said, the program began to grow and paid staff were added. It remains the only program federally mandated to use volunteers, and 5 percent of all hospice clinical hours must be performed by volunteers.

Their work is “immensely important in supporting the patients and families,” Allen said.

“Volunteers can go in and be present with them, listen to them, read stories to them and take dictation for them so they can want to write a memory letter to a loved one,” she said. “Volunteers also listen to them as they reminisce through their lives.”

Allen acknowledged it takes a certain kind of person to be a hospice volunteer.

“There has to be a comfort level of looking at their own mortality and working with patients who are dying,” she said.

Not all volunteers work with patients, Allen added. Some lend their support in other ways.

The scope of the work volunteers do was evident Friday as the members of the volunteer panel spoke about their work with RiverStone Health Hospice.

Emard, a retired nurse who previously worked for the hospice, called volunteering a natural progression. She and another volunteer work with the “Tuck In” program, where they telephone at-home patients and their families to make sure they’re ready for the weekend.

One of her favorite things about working with hospice is hearing patients’ stories, Emard told the new volunteers.

“It’s such a privilege to be there for that part of their lives,” she said. “You get to know them. They’re really special people.”

Walking with people at the end of their lives is “a spiritual journey,” Emard said.

“I always felt I was closer to God in hospice than I ever have been in church,” she said.

Penny Brabec, who volunteers as a mail courier and does respite visits, agreed that volunteers are “invited into these people’s holy place.”

“Not everybody can do it, absolutely, but all my experience with death and living is, ‘Wow, this is a very special time,’ and you can make it better, whatever you do,” she said. “It’s like a gift to be able to do that.”

Brabec’s mother, who lived in Glasgow, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer 33 years ago. Hospice care wasn’t available, which made that a stressful, difficult time for Brabec and her family.

It got her thinking that maybe she could make similar times easier for others, and that propelled her into her hospice work. For a time she was employed by hospice as a referral coordinator, and now she’s a volunteer.

“It gets in your blood, and that’s what it’s all about,” Brabec said. “It’s been a huge blessing to me.”

Everett Jones, a hospice volunteer for 18 years, admits when he started out it wasn’t so much about helping people.

“I was very close to my dad and I lost him in 2008, and he always said, ‘Have you earned your groceries today?’” Jones said, growing emotional. “And then when I retired, I said, OK, I have to have something to do to earn my groceries.”

So he decided to volunteer with hospice. While Jones spent his time interacting with the patients, he discovered it wasn’t a one-way street.

“I found that it was more help to me than it was to them,” Jones said.

He talked about the value of physical touch, of two farmers, one whose sore shoulder was eased with gentle massage and another with painful legs.

“I would always ask permission, ‘How are you doing?’” Jones said, and they gladly accepted his offer. “It really made life easier for them.”

Kris Decker found her niche helping the staff at the Hospice Home. She’ll do dishes, bake cookies and muffins and complete other tasks to make sure the caregivers can devote all their time to the patients.

Decker, who had children later in life, just got them through college, she told the group.

“We talk about, 'You need a village to raise a child,' but honestly you need a village to help people through their last stages,” Decker said.

Nine-year volunteer Beth Krkosa enjoys putting together binders that the intake specialist uses to enroll patients in hospice. She also puts together death folders for nurses to use as needed.

And when a patient dies, the grief support team, which she’s part of, connects with the caregiver four times in the first year after death. That might include telephone calls or sending out a note.

“It’s a long-term follow-up for them, which helps in their grieving process,” Krkosa said.

Ian Pickering spends much of his time volunteering talking with patients and their families. He’ll check with nurses at the Hospice Home to see who might want to visit.

“It means the world to everybody that’s there,” he said. “You’re choosing to be there just because you want to be.”

Pickering recalled the first day he went to the house, worried he wasn’t ready, that he needed to spend more time reading his training binder. But he quickly realized he had everything required to do the work.

“When you show up, the only thing you need to bring is your heart,” he said. “It’s totally worth it, and it’s a great opportunity as a volunteer.”

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General Assignment and Health Care Reporter

General assignment and healthcare reporter at The Billings Gazette.