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Comfort at life's final stages

They provide a familiar voice, a listening ear, a helping hand and a watchful eye.

They are the volunteers of the Franciscan Health System's Improving Care Through the End of Life Program — and more volunteers are needed.

Volunteers are paired with former Franciscan Health System patients whose doctors recommended them for the program. These patients are not ill enough to receive hospice care, but ill enough to need someone to periodically check up on their health.

Volunteers help patients get their affairs in order and prepare for the next stage in life, said Gale Robinette, Franciscan Medical Group spokesman.

The patients have all been diagnosed with a potentially life-threatening illness, but still have some time left before they pass on, said Virginia Schauf, volunteer coordinator at St. Francis Hospital.

The volunteers help their "pals" transition through this stressful time in their lives, Robinette said. They assist pals in maintaining their health, and some are even considered friends.

Each volunteer is paired with two to four pals. Volunteers then call each pal at least once a month to check up on their health — and let pals know somebody is thinking about them. Doctors are busy people and sometimes do not notice signs of decreasing health in their patients, said Charlene Eldridge, 70, a Federal Way resident and Improving Care Through the End of Life program volunteer.

Volunteers are familiar with their pal's health and ask specific questions that will help determine if medical attention is needed, Eldridge said. If volunteers have any concerns about their pals, they may page a nurse for immediate assistance.

"It's comforting for them to know that someone is having an interest in their care," Eldridge said.

Volunteers establish a trusting relationship with their pals and talk about more than just health issues.

Many pals look forward to the phone calls they receive from their volunteer, Eldridge said. For many with illnesses, the volunteers are friends.

One of her pals loves cats and is constantly telling Eldridge about her kittens. While the phone calls are usually conducted in a friendly, laid-back manner, not all of them are lighthearted.

Some pals need someone who is able to reassure them. Some have fears and anxiety about their illness, Eldridge said.

Eldridge remains sensitive about her pals' religious beliefs, and is able to discuss death and the possibility of an afterlife if her pals wish. Smiling fondly, she remembers one instance in which she reassured one of her pals, who has since passed away, that the view in heaven would be much more spectacular than any view he could get from a care facility window.

She comforted him by letting him know there were things to look forward to once he left Earth, she said.

"It's reassuring to know this is not the end all, be all," she said.

Eldridge has a background in nursing and is familiar with working closely with ill and elderly patients. But these things are not required to be an Improving Care Through the End of Life program volunteer, Schauf said.

Training in how to listen closely and identify medical concerns are provided by Franciscan Health System. Volunteers also meet once a month to listen to a guest speaker and discuss any problems they may face with

their pals.

Eldridge hopes that when her health is declining, she will have the opportunity to be involved in this program or a similar one as the pal, rather than the volunteer, she said.

"I truly believe that the program is very vital," Eldridge said.

If a pal's health decreases, he or she may be moved to hospice care, but there will always be a place to return to if their health improves, Schauf said.

Contact Jacinda Howard: jhoward@fedwaymirror.com or (253) 925-5565.

Currently, 10 people volunteer with the St. Francis Hospital branch of the Improving Care Through the End of Life program. To learn more or volunteer with any of the Franciscan Health System branches, call Nicole de Recat at (253) 534-7014.

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