Monday, April 5, 2021

Can Volunteer Service Choose You?


If you are a volunteer, have you ever thought that you didn't choose volunteer service, but that it chose you? I have been a hospice volunteer for twenty years, most of them in urban nursing homes. But I can remember when I dreaded being around sick people. Mostly, I felt I didn't have skills to do the right things in a healthcare environment where somebody might get hurt if I messed up. Once in high school as part of a school club, I visited a nursing home where I fed a woman jello. Years later, jello still reminded me of her and the nursing home, but not in a good way. Volunteering with sick people? Nope, no way! Not me!

So what changed me? Life did. During the 90's, AIDS caused by the HIV virus was like a pandemic in the LGBTQ community. Infected people were often ostracized, criticized, demonized, and dying. I was principal of an urban public school in an area of high poverty, crime and homelessness. Although I had plenty to do on my crowded plate, I felt right at home. However, over a three-year period, I was thrust into life-threatening dilemmas of two gay men I hardly knew. They were my introductions to long-term care of the terminally ill.

Jake, who was in his 30's, came around to talk sometimes after school dismissal. He was showing signs of dementia. He complained about being harassed by invisible people all the time. His boyfriend left him, and he had no family support. I knew he couldn't navigate the healthcare system alone. Eventually, I convinced him and his unseen tormenters to pile into my compact car, buckle up, and let me drive everybody to the hospital where Jake was admitted immediately. Later, he was placed in a nursing home that he said the invisible people did not like. They left, but I looked out for him until he died several months after that.

I thought that surreal scenario would never happen again, but it did a few months later with a man named Sam who was in my exercise class. I didn't really know him, but I asked him what was wrong when I saw him crying in the parking lot one day after class. He told me he had AIDS and had just lost his job because he had missed too much work. He had little family support because they knew he had AIDS and were reluctant to be around him or go to his house. I found him an HIV-AIDS support group which he loved, helped him on his medical journey, and learned more about healthcare and myself in the process. I believe good service is always win-win when I am open to my own growth. Fortunately, his condition improved greatly when better medications became available. 

Several months later after Sam had moved on, I met a friend I had not seen in quite a while who told me she was a hospice volunteer. I actually asked her what a hospice volunteer does and was surprised when I realized that was what I had been doing with the two men. I had been a hospice volunteer all that time and didn't even know it. A few weeks later, I saw a newspaper ad recruiting people for hospice volunteer training. I decided to take the classes and become certified  in case another very ill person showed up in my life. 

Of course, the rest is history. Terminally ill people have come into my life often as patients assigned to me in various nursing homes where I have experienced compelling challenges and satisfying rewards. My book, Becoming Dead Right: A Hospice Volunteer in Urban Nursing Homes shares captivating stories, original poems, and more about the nursing home world and hospice volunteering that chose me.

Frances Shani Parker, Author
Becoming Dead Right: A Hospice Volunteer in Urban Nursing Homes is available in paperback and e-book editions in America and other countries at online and offline booksellers. Frances Shani Parker's Website