Help in their final days


November 22, 1992|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Staff Writer

She takes phone calls in the middle of the night, puts her own life on hold for a dying friend, and helps her patients live their last days in peace and dignity.

"I am there to give hope and encouragement, especially on those hard-to-cope days," said Ellen H. Stickles, 39, who has been a volunteer at Carroll Hospice for the past five years.

She has learned to listen.

"They call you at 3 in the morning," Mrs. Stickles said of the hospice patients. "Sometimes they want you to read the Bible to them. Sometimes they just want to hear a friendly voice. I will read or talk all night, if that's what they need."

When her brother-in-law was dying of cancer several years ago, she turned to the hospice. She was impressed with the organization, she said, and took a 30-hour training course there. She has been volunteering since.

"People ask how many hours I volunteer," she said. "I couldn't begin to count."

Her home and job situation, with "an understanding boss," offer her more free time than some of the 120 other hospice volunteers. Her husband's job frequently takes him away from their home in Millers, and they have no young children.

"My husband understands and always knows where I am," she said. "My boss is great. There aren't many bosses who let you leave when your hospice patient needs you."

Now she works one-on-one with patients. On her first case, the hospice paired her with a "buddy," another volunteer.

"It was nice to have someone to check with," she said. "She could get away during the day, and I did the evenings."

Their patient was a Vietnam veteran who was paralyzed and dying of a brain tumor.

"The tumor affected his speech, and he was difficult to understand," she said. "We worked it out, though."

She said she doesn't worry what to say or do.

"The patients let you know what they want to talk about, or sometimes they just want your presence," Mrs. Sickles said.

Unusual requests from the patients she called "friends" fill her memories and make her smile. At every visit, one elderly patient asked her when he would die. He said he was more than ready.

"I told him he wasn't going anywhere until God wanted him," she said. "So, every day, he and I got down on our knees to pray that God would want him soon."

Mr. Stickles helped Phyllis, a young terminally-ill mother, organize a fashion show to give away all her favorite clothes.

"She was tiny, and as she modeled she teased me," Mrs. Stickles said. "She would say, 'If you were small like me, look at all the clothes I could give you.' "

The same woman turned to Ms. Stickles when she wanted to get special lockets for her two children.

She helped another patient shop through Christmas catalogs from jewelry stores until he found the perfect present for his fiancee. And she made sure that the gift was under the fiancee's tree.

"You get so close to these people, and so angry that they are dying," Mrs. Stickles said. "Nobody wants to die. Most of my patients were resigned, but they fought until the end.

"I bet I have read 'Why Bad Things Happen to Good People' five times. There is no answer to why. It's just life."

For six months last year, she worked with Ann, a 28-year-old cancer patient who died on New Year's Eve.

"I still think about her every day," Mrs. Stickles said. "It was like losing my best friend."

Ann taught many lessons to her loved ones. She never liked people to leave the room to cry.

" 'Cry with me,' she would say," said Mrs. Stickles. "It would let her know you cared."

Mrs. Stickles also has learned to let patients have as much control of their lives as possible.

"Don't take away their responsibilities," she said.

Although volunteer care-givers might lack medical expertise, they must learn to be patient-advocates, Mrs. Stickles said.

"If your patient is in pain, let the doctor know immediately and as often as you have to," she said. "There are many drugs to control pain and allow a patient to die pain-free, in peace and dignity."

In the months since Ann's death, Ms. Stickles has taken a respite from volunteering. She plans to go back the first of next year.

"You can only do so much, and you have to take care of yourself before you can take care of anyone else," she said. "Our coordinators at the hospice constantly check to see if we are doing OK."

Her own friends help, too.

"They let me talk about my patients," she said. "They say they could never do hospice work, but they are willing to listen to my stories."

Mrs. Stickles also works with Wings, a support group for cancer patients and their families. She helped form that group about three years ago.

"I never know their frame of mind, when they come to our meetings, but I am there to give them hope," she said. "Some are terminal, and some are recovering and have been on chemotherapy for a year."

She has found only one drawback to her work with Carroll Hospice: "I hate the paperwork. It's more important to be with the patient."

Mrs. Stickles recommends hospice work to anyone who has the time and the patience.

"I get a lot of satisfaction knowing I can help someone," she said. "I have grown because of my patients. They have taught me to live life to the fullest."

And for Carroll Hospice, she has nothing but praise.

"If I developed cancer tomorrow, I could call Hospice and a volunteer would come to help me."

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