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Hospice Volunteer Needs Few Words to Ease a Patient's Last Moments
Spend just a few minutes with hospice volunteer Sarah Woodard, and you quickly learn how someone can say a lot without speaking.
"When I'm talking to someone who is dying and to their family, the best thing I can do is be myself," said Woodard, an assistant in the office of Hospital CEO Dr. William Fulkerson. "And I don't like to talk much. So I end up just listening to what they have to say. I keep eye contact, and that's often all that you need. I like to hear the story of their life. I want to know who they are. That's a wonderful way to help them maintain their dignity up until their last breath, and even after then. It's their time, and so I'm just there to listen.
"Sometimes I take the listening too far. I've had people with Lou Gehrig's disease who can't speak. They'll write out a sentence, and I'll grab the pencil and write something back, and then they'll write back: 'No, I want you to talk!'"
A hospice volunteer for 11 years, Woodard received the 2004 Duke Employee Community Service Award at a luncheon Monday. The award, sponsored by the Office of Community Affairs, honors staff members who make exceptional contributions through volunteer service to the community. (See winners list below).
Woodard was nominated by Carolyn Colsher, volunteer services coordinators for the hospice service of Duke Health Community Care. Colsher said Woodard has helped many patients, particularly Alzheimer's patients and their families.
"These patients often don't remember Sarah between visits; many of them cannot carry on a conversation or even answer questions," Colsher said. "Sarah believes that these are people with families and histories, people who though sadly diminished deserve to be recognized, remembered and valued until the very end of their lives. She does the very difficult work of recognizing people who may be unrecognizable even to their closest loved ones."
A member of St. Philip's Episcopal Church, a Durham church with a history of community service, Woodard said her spiritual beliefs played an important part in leading her to seek out hospice volunteer work. During her training, she wondered if she was the right person to provide this type of assistance.
"I kept thinking to myself, 'What am I going to do?'" she recalled. "Dying is a sacred time in a person's life. What family is going to let me into their space at that time?"
Many families, as it turned out. Hospice offers terminal patients a variety of services, from professional physical therapists to registered nurses, to help patients deal with pain and other physical issues. Hospice staff say volunteers such as Woodard play a vital role as well.
Much of her work is in nursing homes, Woodard said. When she visits a patient, it's not unusual for others at the nursing home to come around and listen to her readings or the music that she brings.
"I don't push any religion, but I do discuss spirituality. I find out what the patient wants to hear. It's generally something familiar, a favorite psalm or poem. I would love to sing hymns with them, but I don't have the best voice," she said with a laugh.
"I'm meeting people in the last stages of their lives. Most of them are accepting of that, but some will have some anger. That's when it's important to let them talk, to express their fears and anger. After they do that, they don't seem to be so angry anymore. They're trying to put their life in a different perspective as it ends. It's important to give them their space and time, and sometimes that clock is ticking pretty fast."
Woodard, who is married to Mike Woodard, an administrator who managed the SAP R/3 administrative systems software, also volunteers in Duke Gardens, one of her favorite places to visit. She serves as a docent and is now involved with helping the staff organize an October conference for a statewide group of gardeners.
What she enjoys the most, she said, is just taking people through the gardens.
"This is a place where I come to be balanced," she said while sitting among the colorful early spring blooms of the garden's terrace. "When I see everything in bloom, it reminds me that everything on their earth will continue to grow until we die, and it's all connected, something to marvel at.
"People can enjoy the gardens on so many different levels. I can put on jeans and run around the Blomquist Gardens as if it were a nature trail. Or I can sit down and study it more formally and find the connections to my life. There's one spot in the gardens where the slate comes from the old roof of a Raleigh orphanage. It so happens that I went to Sunday school with some of the girls from that orphanage, so looking at that slate unleashes a number of warm memories for me.
"Or I can come down to the fish pond and remember [former gardens horticulturalist] Larry Daniel's stories about the time the fish pond overflowed, and he had to wrestle some of those big goldfish to get them back in. There are many memories and stories that this place just evokes."
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Woodard and Pratt School student Andrew Schmidt were honored Monday at a luncheon held by the Community Service Center.
Schmidt, a sophomore in biomedical engineering, received the 2004 Lars Lyon Community Service Award for his contributions as a volunteer at Hillendale Elementary School. He worked on several projects at the school, including the rebuilding of the school's nature trail, which was destroyed by an ice storm.
Other students and employees who were nominated included students Jamie Frank, a Trinity junior; Rebecca Dann, a Pratt junior; and Chris Einmo, a Pratt junior; employee Joyce Arcus, a patient resource manager, and Joan Clifford, a visiting assistant professor of Romance studies.
The Lars Lyon Memorial Endowment Fund was established in 1989 in memory of a Duke student known for his commitment to volunteer service.
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