VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System
Dedicated Volunteers Ensure No Veteran Dies Alone
President Abraham Lincoln challenged Americans to "care for him who...have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan." Now VA volunteers take Lincoln's promise to the bedside of Veterans during their final hours.
As part of the recently-launched No Veteran Dies Alone (NVDA) program at VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System, volunteers give Veterans "the most precious gift," according to VAPHS Chaplain Alan Morris – the gift of their presence.
"No Veteran Dies Alone is about being there when what a Veteran needs most is a relationship, because at the end that's all that matters," said Morris.
Volunteers can speak, read or hold the hand of a Veteran to comfort them. They are on call to come in when needed and often stay longer than required – because they want to.
Susan Rogers, of O'Hara, and George Coppola, of Collier, are two of the volunteers to graduate from the first class of NVDA training in August. Since then, they have each sat vigil with two dying Veterans.
"When you're in a room with a Veteran, it's very calming for both of you," said Coppola. "You really get a sense of being with him or her."
Coppola, a Vietnam Veteran, has had extensive hospice experience with his mother and other loved ones. He has also known other Veterans who died alone and wants to prevent that from happening to anyone else.
Rogers' father, a 92-year-old World War II Veteran, lives in Ft. Wayne, Ind. She knows that if she cannot be at his bedside when his final hours arrive, she would like somebody to be there with him.
"I can serve others in the way I hope he is comforted at the end of his life," Rogers said.
Dr. Sandra Blakowski, chief of hospice and palliative care, explains that just the touch of another human being is enough to bring great comfort to dying Veterans. "You don't need to be the smartest person in the world or have great talent," she said. "You just need to be a human being."
Rogers said that VA hospice staff often thank NVDA volunteers for providing the end-of-life companionship that they sometimes can't due to time and workload constraints.
"The hospice staff show so much compassion and care for these Veterans," Rogers said. "It's good to be a part of a team that makes the last hours of Veterans so comfortable and dignified."
Coppola recalls providing comfort to one Veteran whom only a fellow soldier could fully understand.
"I told him he had done a good job with his family, and it was time for this old soldier to go home," said Coppola. "I asked him if he heard me, and he squeezed my hand."
NVDA volunteers must become registered VA Pittsburgh volunteers and train in the hospice or palliative care functions before receiving additional NVDA training. For more information, contact Maria Gibb at 412-822-3084 or firstname.lastname@example.org.