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Vigil Volunteers seeks those with compassion to spare

Feb. 27, 2020, 10:08 AM

Dan Kula, a volunteer with Vanderbilt Vigil Volunteers, visits with patient Gwenthian Hewitt. The program provides support for seriously ill patients at VUMC who might not have a loved one available to be at their bedside.
Dan Kula, a volunteer with Vanderbilt Vigil Volunteers, visits with patient Gwenthian Hewitt. The program provides support for seriously ill patients at VUMC who might not have a loved one available to be at their bedside. (photo by Susan Urmy)

by Jill Clendening

Dan Kula remembers entering a patient’s room on the Palliative Care Unit at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and immediately sensing the man’s agitation, which can be a symptom for those who are terminally ill.

“I began to stroke his hand and talk to him to try to help him relax,” Kula said. “I asked him to breathe deeply, but he was still agitated. Something told me this man was an outdoors person, so I said, ‘Think about being out in the woods. You’re walking, and there’s a lake, and you’ve got a fishing pole. You cast out, and you reel in, and you cast back out.’ And he opened his eyes up and said, ‘I caught a bass, too!’ Then he closed his eyes, and he settled down.”

For the past seven years, Kula has volunteered for several hours each Friday as a companion and support for seriously ill patients who might not have a loved one available to be at their bedside. Kula said after being treated successfully for cancer at VUMC 11 years ago, he considers his service as payback.

“Vanderbilt is a special place for me,” he said. “All these people want is somebody to talk to or to listen or just to be present. I don’t go into any room with a preset dialogue or expectation. I get a great sense of satisfaction from doing something for my fellow man.”

In 2016, VUMC piloted 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 — in the 16-bed Palliative Care Unit. The unit serves patients facing life-threatening or life-limiting illness or injury.

The V3 program was started by Rebecca Hixson, RN, a Palliative Care nurse, and former VUMC Chaplain Matt Frierdich, MDiv.

At that time, Kula was asked if he was interested in joining V3, and he’s been working on the unit ever since.

During his hours volunteering, Kula said he might read or talk to a patient, or just simply sit and be a comforting presence. The Palliative Care Unit also provides volunteers a kit full of reading materials, word games, simple crafts and other items that might be useful during patient visits.

There are no religious expectations of volunteers, and there is no need to have a medical background, as that isn’t the program’s purpose. The main requirement is the capacity for compassion and the ability to be a reassuring presence.

“To me, I just can’t see anybody dying without having someone there with them,” Kula said. “This is not rocket science; it’s opening yourself up to another individual and just being there for them.”

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

In just the past six months, 179 patients have benefited from the V3 program, with multiple volunteers often sitting with a single individual. While the program briefly expanded to send V3 volunteers to the Medical Center’s intensive care units, the program is now focused on the patient population of the Palliative Care Unit.

Another change is that rather than being “on call,” volunteers are asked to commit to a four-hour shift on a set schedule, totaling at least 120 hours a year. This schedule change has proven to be more successful and sustainable, said Ian Cullen, MDiv, a Palliative Care Unit chaplain who now helps lead the program.

“We have some volunteers, like Dan, who are here weekly, and we have some volunteers who are here once a month,” he said. “We’re asking for a minimum of a year commitment right now, and we’ve developed specialized training everyone goes through that is unique to this volunteering opportunity.”

While V3 accepts applications year-round, to be eligible to participate in the next round of training this spring, applications must be received by March 6.

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. Program staff meet with volunteers after they sit with a patient so they can talk about their experience.

Anyone interested in becoming a V3 volunteer can apply here.

If you have questions, email Cynthia.warner@vumc.org.

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