Reverend William Lawson never fully recovered from the fall that broke his ankle on December 23, 2009. Grace, his devoted and loving wife of 56 years, recalls that he never regained his balance and continued to suffer from repeated falls. “Each time he fell,” she says, “he went downhill a little bit.”
In September of 2011, 81-year-old Rev. Lawson contracted pneumonia and lay in Milford Regional’s ICU on a ventilator. Grace faced one of the most difficult decisions of her life, following the wishes of her husband that he not be kept on life support. He was moved to the fifth floor where “comfort measures only” would be administered. Little did Grace know, that over the last six days of his life, her husband would be the recipient of extraordinary compassion from complete strangers… ironically, a 360 degree reversal on his life of selfless giving to others.
Early in 2011, Milford Regional was the first hospital in Massachusetts to adopt a program started in Eugene, Oregon that brings trained volunteers to the bedside of a dying patient when loved ones and family members are unable to be present. MRMC was already known for the exceptional measures taken by nurses and staff to accommodate the dying patient and their loved ones during this difficult time. Taking on this new program was a natural extension of what was already being done at MRMC explains Elaine Willey, director of volunteer services and coordinator of Milford Regional’s program called Compassionate Companions. Though the Medical Center provides overnight accommodations for loved ones at this critical time, Elaine points out that it is very hard for them to be at the patient’s bedside 24 hours a day. Compassionate Companions provides trained volunteers who are willing to fill in the gaps of time and sit with the dying patient.
“It’s not about doing,” Elaine notes. “It’s about being. The essence of the program is a compassionate caring presence at the end of life. Every hour that a compassionate companion is there is one less hour that a patient is alone.” The volunteers have access to comfort carts that include such items as music, books to read and lotion to massage the patient’s hands. They also pen notes about their time with the patient in a log for the family and loved ones to read later.
The initial response from the community to participate in this program was overwhelming. “One hundred people responded,” exclaims Elaine. “I was astounded.” Following interviews, 40 individuals went on to complete a four hour training that included input from Elaine, nurses, a chaplain from hospice and social workers. When a “vigil” with a dying patient is scheduled, volunteers are notified through email. It is their choice to sign up based upon their own schedules.
Grace could not have been more grateful for the presence of the compassionate companions during her husband’s vigil. “I didn’t want to leave,” Grace says sadly. “I would get there early in the morning and stay all day. My son felt it was important for me to get my own rest during the night.”
34-year-old Meghan DeGasperis of Milford was one of several Compassionate Companions to spend time with Rev. Lawson. Having lost her husband, Robert, four years earlier, Meghan came to the vigil with wisdom far beyond her years. “I lost my husband suddenly,” she explains. “This program is the opportunity to make a person’s last days peaceful and comfortable.”
While Grace garnered several hours of important rest at home, Meghan held Rev. Lawson’s hand. She played music. She monitored his breathing. She sat with him. She watched the sun rise with him. Before leaving, Meghan briefly met Grace and her son, William. “You know you are needed,” Meghan reflects. “Helping others makes your own life more fulfilling.”
Grace still marvels at the willingness of the Compassionate Companions to give of their own time to sit with a dying patient they don’t know. “I could have paid for a nurse to sit with my husband,” she says. “But this meant so much more. These beautiful, caring people chose to be with him. What a wonderful, wonderful gift.”