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Vigil Volunteers program expanding to Medical ICU

Jan. 12, 2017, 10:28 AM

Todd Havens participates in the Vanderbilt Vigil Volunteers program, which pairs volunteers with dying patients who have no family members or friends with them. (photo by Anne Rayner)
Todd Havens participates in the Vanderbilt Vigil Volunteers program, which pairs volunteers with dying patients who have no family members or friends with them. (photo by Anne Rayner)

After a successful 2016 pilot in the 16-bed Palliative Care Unit, the Vanderbilt Vigil Volunteers (V3) program — which pairs a volunteer with dying patients who either have no known family or friends, or whose family and friends are unable to be with them — is expanding into the Medical Intensive Care Unit (MICU) in early 2017.

“From a nurse’s perspective, this has been fantastic for our patients,” said Rebecca Hixson, R.N., a V3 co-founder and a Palliative Care nurse. “When we placed the first few volunteers in patient rooms, the patients immediately calmed, without needing medication. That is huge. We talk a lot on this unit about how we believe that the human spirit is a lot stronger than the human body, and I think this really shows that.”

Todd Havens, vice president in Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s Office of Internal Audit, has been a V3 volunteer since the program’s beginning, and his desire to participate stemmed from incidents that occurred early in his life.

His family faced the tragedy of losing two children; Havens’ older brother died at 18 and an older sister died when she was 27. Havens’ mother responded to their family’s loss by volunteering in a hospice facility for more than 30 years. Havens’ father served as a volunteer fireman for more than 50 years, and Havens himself became a volunteer fireman and emergency medical technician (EMT) before he was 20. He said finding ways to serve others is a vital part of who he is.

“It’s absolutely the right thing to do for our patients, and this is an example of where our clinical teams and our pastoral teams have thought outside of the box to say, ‘We take amazing care of the folks in the Palliative Care Unit, but what else can we do?’” Havens said. “It’s also a great example of how the Office of Internal Audit is supporting our organization’s Credo, as it is clearly linked to the V3 program’s effort to provide excellence in health care, treat others as we wish to be treated and to continuously evaluate and improve our performance.”

There are currently 25 trained V3 volunteers, and since volunteers began providing this service in September 2016, approximately 15 patients have benefitted, with multiple volunteers often sitting with a single individual, Hixson said. Havens has assisted three patients so far, and he has volunteered for overnight hours, a shift that can be more challenging to match with available volunteers.

“The peace I hope I’ve provided our patients, and the inner peace that I’ve left their rooms with, are the real reasons to consider volunteering your time with the V3 program,” he said.
Hixson, along with Vanderbilt Chaplain Matt Frierdich, M.Div., Palliative Care Unit Medical Director Mohana Karlekar, M.D., and Director of Pastoral Care & Volunteer Services Andy Peterson, developed the V3 program, modeling it after a national program called No One Dies Alone.

While similar national programs provide volunteers only for patients who have absolutely no family or friends available, the V3 program has been tailored to meet the needs of VUMC’s patient population, said Frierdich. Because Vanderbilt serves patients from a multistate area, families might be too far away to be with their loved ones as they near death, so V3 volunteers are able to step in. Patients nearing death can also receive V3 visits for a longer period of time, Hixson said.

“Our original criterion was that eligible patients needed to be within a 48-hour window until the end of life,” she said. “Now, we’ve opened it up to anyone who has limited time left who doesn’t have anyone to be with them, or patients who just have one individual with them, and that individual needs a break.”

Julie Foss, MSN, R.N., manager of Vanderbilt’s 34-bed MICU, is excited about the V3 program’s expansion into this area of the adult hospital. While the health care team attends to all their physical needs, Foss said MICU patients can also benefit from having someone present in their room.

“Right now, we have patients who are actively dying with no family or friends to be with them, so the staff will sit with these patients so that they are not alone,” Foss said. “While many of our MICU patients may not be fully aware of their surroundings, we believe that continuous presence of others helps patients to be more at peace as they go through the dying process.”

Although the pilot program was staffed primarily with existing VUMC volunteers and employees, now everyone in the community can apply to participate. V3 volunteers receive training specific to end-of-life issues, and they must complete a VUMC orientation. After the program is successfully implemented in the MICU, it will then be expanded to other areas of the Critical Care Tower.

Anyone interested in becoming a V3 volunteer can apply at:

If you have questions, email

To learn more about the Strategic Directions, go here.

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