He helps the dying, their families Promise: After he got help from Hospice Services during his wife's illness and death, one man made good on his vow to comfort others.

October 12, 1997|By Carolyn Melago | Carolyn Melago,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

During his wife's battle with colon cancer seven years ago, George Kronmiller leaned on Hospice Services of Howard County. Today, the group relies on the humble 64-year-old to comfort the dying and guide their families through the toughest days.

Though Kronmiller shrugs off compliments and shies away from recognition, he was honored last month as State Hospice Volunteer of the Year, chosen from among those who work out of 30 hospice organizations in Maryland.

"If I call him and say I'm in a bind, George will move the earth to step in and help," says Elaine Patico, volunteer coordinator for the county service. "In his very laid-back way, he says, 'I can handle it.' "

Kronmiller, a Howard County resident since 1956, vowed to repay Hospice Services the help he had received before the death of his wife, Selma, in 1990. He promised to work with the dying.

"A lot of people will say that out of the best of intentions," Patico says. "But very few can follow through."

Kronmiller, a reserved man with ruddy cheeks and smiling eyes, returned to his job as a supervisory electrical engineer with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. After he retired in 1994, he began hospice training.

Hospice Services of Howard County provides home-based comfort and care for patients with short life expectancies and their families. Home health aides address medical needs, chaplains handle spiritual concerns, and trained volunteers such as Kronmiller offer companionship and relief.

In the three years since he started volunteering, Kronmiller has cared for 22 families grappling with cancer and death. He spends as many as 60 hours a month -- providing breaks for family members, talking and listening to the terminally ill, picking and delivering hospital beds and medication, planning funerals.

Kronmiller says each family's needs are different, and he strives to personalize the work in a way that connects with his patients.

"In one case, a gentleman liked to watch one particular program in the early part of the afternoon, one of those afternoon soap operas," Kronmiller remembers with a laugh. "So I made sure that when I was there he got to see his show."

Kronmiller also juggles his schedule -- mainly housework and service to his church, New Hope Lutheran in Columbia -- so that he can make volunteering a priority. He remembers that families dealing with a terminal illness often have so many demands on their time that squeezing in errands and appointments becomes impossible.

"One man's son was mostly working at night or from late afternoon into the night. So the only time he had to run errands was several times a week between 9 a.m. and noon," he says. "I made sure I could be at the house then."

His most challenging and time-consuming work was with a man whose wife died of cancer in 1995. Kronmiller spent a year and a half helping the man grieve and rebuild.

"We couldn't just leave him. After his wife died, he had no immediate family. So I helped him get his finances in order, clean out and sell his house and move into a retirement community," Kronmiller says. "But he passed away, too, in June. We were fortunate that it was all done when he passed on."

None of Kronmiller's patients has survived. If family members asked for help early on, he may have had several months to work with them; if it was late in the illness, he may have had only a few weeks.

"You know from the beginning [that the person is going to die], and you feel OK because you know you're helping," he says. "When anyone passes away, there's a certain feeling of loss. But we have to show a bit of inner strength."

This calm, composed demeanor makes Kronmiller such an invaluable volunteer, says Patico, who nominated Kronmiller for the state award.

And he's extremely modest. When Patico asked Kronmiller whom he would like to invite to the awards ceremony in Ocean City, she was surprised that he said he wasn't going to take anyone.

"What I found out was he didn't tell anyone," she says. "I told him afterward, 'If you don't call your daughter, I will.' "

For Kronmiller, though, the relationships he makes are enough credit. He remembers the thanks he received from one patient in the hospice suite of Howard County General Hospital.

"She said she really appreciated the hospice workers. Yes, she liked to have her friends stop by, but she felt she had to be 'up' for them. With volunteers, she could feel however she wanted," Kronmiller says. "That made my day.

"She didn't want to be any trouble, didn't want to impose [on her friends]. With us, she never had to worry about that."

Pub Date: 10/12/97

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