New Mexico VA Health Care System
VA Sets Goal: No Veteran Dies Alone
“You matter because you are you, and you matter to the end of your life. We will do all we can not only to help you die peacefully, but also to live until you die.”
-Dame Cicely Saunders (1918-2005) Nurse, Physician, Writer, and Founder of the Hospice Movement
The hospice section of Unit 4D at the Raymond G. Murphy VA Medical Center in Albuquerque can be a lonely place for some Veterans. Unlike their fellow Veterans just down the hall in the rehabilitative section, hospice patients are not working toward going home and returning to their previous level of functioning. The hospice section, also known as the Palliative Care Unit, is a place where patients with terminal illness come to have their end-of-life symptoms managed and for many, to live out their final days. They receive specialized care that focuses on quality of life, whatever that means for the individual, by a team that addresses physical, spiritual, emotional and psychosocial aspects of the Veteran.
Leaving the life they know can be a difficult process for those who do not have loved ones nearby. This can be somewhat softened by a VA program called “No Veteran Dies Alone.”
“This is a program whereby Veterans who are nearing the end of their lives, who are alone for a variety of reasons, have the opportunity to have a volunteer come to their bedside and sit with that Veteran,” said Elizabeth “Libby” Hopkins, a Clinical Educator within the Community Living Center.
Hopkins has been a nurse for 35 years, with the past 15 spent as a hospice nurse. Since taking over the management of the No Veteran Dies Alone program in Albuquerque last year, Hopkins has worked hard to improve the program. As part of that change, volunteers are now able to sit with family members who might also be lonely as their Veteran is dying and the service is now available to dying Veterans on all hospital floors and units, not just on 4D.
One of Hopkins’ volunteers is Jan Cameron, who was a fulltime nurse for more than three decades before semi-retiring last summer. Cameron has served as a program volunteer at the medical center for two months. She said her motivation to help others traces back to her father, a World War II Veteran who passed away in July 2016.
“I never really knew what to do to help my dad,” Cameron said. “He had a lot of struggles from his service and had a difficult time. I always wanted to help and to pay back, to put my knowledge into helping others -especially at the end of life. I want to sit with someone and support them.”
When a patient’s death is imminent, Cameron will sit at the Veteran’s bedside, sometimes gently touching the patient as soothing music plays in the background. If the patient appears restless, she will assure the patient that he or she is okay and in a safe place. She said just being a “gentle presence” in the room at someone’s end of life does help.
“I’ll just send out healing, loving, comforting thoughts,” she explained. “People are very sensitive when they are at the last part of their life, so the essence of the whole room they are in has a lot of meaning.”
At times, a Veteran’s family members will need a break in order to rest or run errands. That’s when volunteers can step in to stay with the patient.
“If the family wants to wait and meet the volunteer before they leave the hospital, they will at least know the person who is sitting with their Veteran,” Hopkins said.
Volunteers often communicate with one another and staff via an individualized Veteran preference sheet, and often add informal “shift notes” that they share with other volunteers. An example might be that the Veteran does not like a sheet tucked in too tightly around the feet or tends to become more anxious when the television is on. Some patients are not happy being in the dark and prefer to have a bathroom light left on while they sleep.
Hopkins said the program has a constant need for a special type of volunteer.
“We are looking for people who are compassionate and interested in being present with Veterans at the end of their lives. This is an on-call service. People take on-call shifts and need to be able to respond within 30 to 60 minutes of getting called to the medical center.”
Anyone interested in volunteering for the “No Veteran Dies Alone” program should call the medical center’s Voluntary Service at (505) 256-2771, or contact Libby Hopkins for more information at Elizabeth.Hopkins@va.gov or (505) 265-1711, Ext. 2225.