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Hospice friends deliver gifts of time and presence

Many of Donna Wilkinson’s friends die soon after meeting her.

Each one takes a little piece of her heart when they go, she said. But the short-lived relationships are a blessing.

Wilkinson, 52, is one of several Federal Way residents who volunteer with the Franciscan Hospice Program. Volunteers serve as companions for terminally ill patients who generally have six months or less to live.

Wilkinson said she sees her current patient for about an hour each week.

“It’s like she has a friend that she can call if she needs anything,” Wilkinson said. “I’m not someone watching over her. I’m not her nurse. I’m not her family. I’m a friend to her.”

Her previous patient was an elderly man who just wanted Wilkinson to take him to the restaurant Shari’s, she said.

“When I drive by Shari’s, I get choked up, but I also get good memories,” she said. “You get to love them.”

It takes a certain strength for a person to be able to cope with so much loss. But Dave McArdle, another Federal Way volunteer, is hesitant to say he’s special.

“I’ve had friends tell me they couldn’t do it,” he conceded.

McArdle, 68, has volunteered with the hospice program for nearly 20 years. He began volunteering after a close family member died of cancer.

“It just seemed like such a waste not to try to help other people that are going down the same path,” he said.

McArdle said he forms close relationships with the families of terminally ill patients he cares for. He sees his role as assisting the patients as they go through their final stages of life.

“In many cases, I do things that the family can’t do or they’re just too busy to do,” he said.

Often, that means doing light yard work, running errands or taking the patient for rides to the waterfront.

For Caroline Perrault, a 74-year-old hospice volunteer from Federal Way, helping patients often means reading to them, playing Scrabble, or just being there while they sleep.

Perrault said she deals with the knowledge that her patients will die soon by not dwelling on it.

“I just enjoy the moments that we have together,” she said. “I don’t look ahead to the time of their passing...This is our time together and I’m going to enjoy the time we have together. And then I deal with it when they pass and then of course I grieve for them.”

Knowing that she offered relief to people in the last days of their lives is tremendously rewarding, Perrault said.

“I am comforted by the thought that I was there for them bringing them a little light, a little joy at the end of their life so they weren’t neglected. They weren’t alone,” she said. “They knew that somebody cared for them besides doctors and nurses.”

Volunteers give hospice patients a kind of care that nurses and doctors can’t give, said James Bentley, volunteer coordinator for Franciscan Hospice.

“Volunteers provide a very important kind of compassionate presence for patients and sometimes they are this compassionate stranger that allows patients to kind of go on with their process,” he said. “It really is a gift of time and presence that helps the patient.”

Contact Margo Hoffman: mhoffman@fedwaymirror.com or (253) 925-5565.

The Franciscan Health System is currently recruiting volunteers from the Federal Way area for the hospice program. Orientation and training sessions will be held at 1:30 p.m. May 14 and at 5:30 p.m. May 28 at Franciscan Hospice, 909 336th St., Suite 10, Federal Way.

Volunteers must be age 16 or older and willing to commit to four hours a week for at least a year.

For more information, call James Bentley at (253) 534-7069 or e-mail jamesbentley@FHShealth.org.

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