It was the heartbreaking loss of a little granddaughter that eventually led Betty and John Power to devote their time and care to bringing human warmth and comfort to people who are dying without family or friends to through the final hours.
The Powers, of Jim Thorpe, train others through the No One Dies Alone program at Blue Mountain Health System hospitals and the Summit at Blue Mountain nursing center. The couple train the program's Compassionate Companions, volunteers who sit with those who are dying.
At Blue Mountain, the volunteers are there for those who have outlived their families and friends. They also fill the gap for the times when family members cannot be with the dying person because they have to go to work or must travel a long distance.
"No one is born alone, and no one should die alone. People deserve the dignity and respect of not having to die alone," Blue Mountain spokeswoman Lisa Johnson says.
The Powers learned about the No One Dies Alone program while they were in a pastoral care training session at another health system. Also taking the training was the late Daniel Murray of Lehighton. Murray, whose parents had died alone, was intent on bringing the program to Blue Mountain, Betty Powers says.
"Our former pastoral care chairman, the late Rev. H. Wilson Scott Jr., thought this would be a good opportunity for our health system to begin," Johnson says. The program is needed because Carbon County has a high geriatric population there were 11,644 people over age 65 in the county, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.
"This was definitely something that not only the hospitals would benefit from, but also the residents in our nursing home," Johnson says. "A lot of them don't have family members, or at least family members close enough to be able to be with them when they are dying."
Murray, along with the Powers, was among the first seven people to be trained in 2010 as Compassionate Companions for Blue Mountain's program.
"Just as we started the program, his health began failing," Johnson said. "He was actually a patient here at the hospital. When we started the program, we went to him to tell him personally that we had our first activation of the No One Dies Alone program. It was a really special time for him. He was sad (that he could not have been a Compassionate Companion volunteer), but he was glad that it had started. This was something near and dear to his heart."
Murray, a longtime member of the Blue Mountain Pastoral Care Committee, died on Feb. 6 at age 84.
As with Murray, the Power's path to No One Dies Alone led from personal grief.
"We had lost a granddaughter, Elizabeth Huff, at age 3," Betty Power says.
"We were 1,300 miles away," John Power says.
Although the couple was able to be there as Elizabeth passed, "It left such an impression on us to be with her, as she died. It lingered in the back of our hearts for a long time. When this program was mentioned, we knew right away it was something we wanted to do," Betty says.
The Powers not only volunteer at Blue Mountain, they are Compassionate Companions at three other hospitals in the Lehigh Valley.
"It's such an amazing ministry. So many people say to us, 'oh, it's so depressing'. But it's anything but depressing. It's such a blessing ...," Betty Power says.
"It's a privilege," John Power says.
Learning to be there
Volunteers who want to serve as Compassionate Companions go through six hours of training. Thirteen new volunteers went through the Blue Mountain program training in April. An additional eight are waiting to take the next training session, to be held this fall. Volunteers come from all walks of life.
"A lot of the training is telling people what not to do," John Power says. Compassionate Companions do not provide medical care, give the patients water or food, or move them. They also work under the promise of confidentiality, meaning they do not discuss patients with anyone. Nor do they become involved with the patient's family members.
If a family member arrives, the Compassionate Companion quietly leaves unless asked to stay.
The training includes learning how to communicate through touch, tone of voice and posture, and to "be present, in body, mind and spirit." It also includes learning what signs to watch for as a person nears death, and when medical help should be summoned. It includes empathy seeing how the patient sees, affirming what the patient believes, removing one's own personal agenda and seeing the experience of illness, dying and hospitalization from the patient's perspective.
The training also covers the spiritual, emotional and cultural aspects of dying. The patient may want to tell his or her life story, be assured that they are valued and have contributed to the world, or listen to a piece of music, pray, or listen to Bible verses or even read the newspaper.
How the program works
Compassionate Companions get a phone call from a telephone coordinator, who tells them a patient needs a CC. The volunteers tell the coordinator which hours and days they can be available.
"We like to do four-hour shifts," Betty Power says.
At Blue Mountain, the nursing supervisor activates the system, putting volunteers into the time slots they have available.
"When it's our time, we come in and touch base with whoever might be there ahead of us, to see what they have observed, if there is anything we should know about the patient," Betty Power says. "If we are the first ones there, we talk to the nurse, and then we go and we sit in the room. We do comfort measures, we're not there for medical (care), we're there for a presence. We hold their hand, brush hair off their face or out of their eyes, massage their hands or feet, maybe rearrange pillows just things that make them a little more comfortable.
"Very often, the patients are unconscious, and unaware. But hearing and touch are the last senses to go. So those are what we use," she says.
Power said volunteers also talk with the patient, often incorporating his or her interests or work, if that is known.
She cites as an example comforting a woman she knew had been a seamstress, and they talked about her making choir robes for the angels.
Sometimes, volunteers pray with the patient, sometimes they read to him or her. Sometimes, they are just there.
"Mostly, it's just a ministry of presence," Betty Power says. "It's just the being there that's important. What you do while you are there is not nearly as important as your presence in the room."
John Power says the program is not religious.
"You're there for anybody, of any faith or no faith," he says.
A new volunteer
One of the 13 people to have taken the training in April is Blue Mountain Assistant Physical Therapist/ Cardiac Rehab Karen Alboucq.
She became involved at Betty Power's request.
Alboucq, a Eucharistic minister and St. Peter and Paul parishioner, has "seen people at the end stage of their life. I knew they needed somebody to hold their hand and just to be there for them."
Alboucq was there, as was her family, as her father, Chester Karas, died in 2007.
"Just being there with him, as he was surrounded by his family, I knew that it was a very peaceful end to his wonderful life," she says.
Now, she's giving that gift to others.
"They are actually giving you a gift," she says of the patients. "Because you know that all of their pain will be gone, they're going to be seeing their Lord and being with Him, and that's an awesome thing."
For more information about the No One Dies Alone program, call Denise Kennedy at (610) 377-7350.