Glenn and Kathy Helme, a retired West Baltimore couple, recently returned from a year spent emptying bed pans and giving sponge baths to strangers in the end stages of AIDS and cancer. These deeds took place at a Roman Catholic hospice called Comfort House in McAllen, Texas. Of the 30 residents who entered the hospice while the Helmes were there, 29 died.
They volunteered for the mission through the Church of the Brethren's volunteer service, based in Elgin, Ill.
The Helmes, who have been married for 35 years, are quick to say that there's nothing extraordinary about them or their volunteer effort. He was an engineer for Bendix Corp. and then Nurad Inc., and was a member of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Chorus for several years. After staying home to raise their three sons, Kathy returned to school in 1975 to complete her nursing degree, and went to work for the Visiting Nurses Association before resigning in 1986 to join Glenn in retirement.
They have that comfortable look of a couple who has been together a long time. Kathy easily finishes Glenn's sentences. Glenn knows what Kathy is thinking well before she speaks.
Q: Why did you join the Brethren Volunteer Service?
Kathy: We found out about it through a young woman who was a speaker at one of our fellowship dinners at church. We are members of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) up on Edmondson Avenue. When we came home from that dinner we were both thinking: "This is really interesting; we would both like to do this."
Q: Why go 1,800 miles away from home to volunteer?
Kathy: A couple that we're really close to were really pushing for us to take a project close to home. They told us we'd be able to come home and see people on the weekend.
Glenn: We felt if we were going to do it, and it would just be a week-day thing and come home on the weekend -- it wouldn't be the kind of dedication to it that we thought was necessary.
Q: Why choose cancer and AIDS patients?
Kathy: I knew from my work with the Visiting Nurses Association that many folks are reluctant to take care of people with AIDS. And Glenn certainly was supportive of me while I was doing that. So we thought there might not be a lot of people interested in going to Comfort House if they thought there might be people there with AIDS. So Comfort House was our first choice.
Q: A lot of people talk about doing something like this but never do it. Why did you follow through?
Kathy: We had the time and the opportunity.
Q: What kinds of people were in the hospice?
Kathy: They were from all different walks of life. Several of them had strokes; we had a cardiac case. But most of the people had cancer, and most of the time the family just could no longer take care of the person.
Q: Weren't you afraid of dealing with death?
Glenn: I had always thought about death the way it is in the movies: dramatic, sudden . . .
Kathy: It's not a frightening thing when it happens. It might be sudden, but not dramatic.
Q: Was the experience depressing?
Kathy: It's not depressing; it is sad and emotional.
Glenn: We tend to be goal-oriented; if the goal is to keep people free of pain and comfortable, then when it's over you feel you've achieved your goal. With very few exceptions, we were able to do all of that.
Q: Were you missionaries?
Kathy: I didn't see myself as a missionary -- going out to represent my church.
Glenn: It's a term we don't use a lot. But it's true that it was a mission.
Q: What did this experience teach you about yourselves?
Glenn: I can do anything for a year.
Kathy: It reinforced my feeling that everybody is a person of God and worth being cared for.
Q: What was the hardest thing about being away for a year?
Kathy: We had two granddaughters born while were were away, and that was hard.
Q: What do you do for fun?
Kathy: We do Center Stage; we go to Theatre Hopkins, the symphony; that kind of thing and things in church.
Glenn: We took a seven-week trip to New Zealand.
Q. What do you plan to do now?
Kathy: We're volunteers with St. Agnes Hospital's hospice program. If a family [of a terminally ill person] needs a volunteer to come in to give a break to the care giver, that's what we do. We're also -- as part of that hospice program -- part of the bereavement program; that mostly involves telephone contact where you follow up with a family for a year. We had training in those areas while we were in McAllen.
Q: Do you do other volunteer work in Baltimore?
Kathy: We volunteer at the Don Miller House, a residence for people with AIDS.
Kathy: Volunteering is important to us; it's just a part of what we do.