The Kindness of Strangers
NODA's compassionate companions, as the volunteers are called, sit at the bedside of the dying, holding a hand or stroking an arm. Some talk or read aloud—everything from essays in Chicken Soup for the Soul to articles in Field & Stream. Others play CDs. The shared time is intense but not always somber. During one NODA vigil, a volunteer found herself singing along, at 3 A.M., to Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. Another volunteer traded fishing stories with a 96-year-old man during the last hours of his life. Whatever the volunteers do in these hours, they offer the most valuable gift: a dignified death. In return they sometimes experience something profound.
Jim Clark (no relation to Sandra) is a 61-year-old maintenance man at Sacred Heart whose work ranges from repairing beds to unclogging toilets; he's an amateur gunsmith and an NRA-certified pistol instructor. He heard about NODA from a coworker not long after his own father died, with Clark by his side. "It matters how you go," Clark says. "I would never have wanted my father to go alone." Since he put his name on the list, Clark has participated in more than two dozen vigils and has been with six people at the moment of their deaths. He remembers sitting in a chair by one woman's bedside listening to her labored end-of-life breathing. "I told her there were friends waiting for her on the other side. I told her to relax. And I think she did. I think I helped." Clark pauses and swallows. "You have no idea what that means to me."
Another volunteer, a 50-year-old receptionist named Vicki Wiederhold, recalls being able to calm an agitated patient. "After a while, she seemed to fall asleep or slip into a coma," Wiederhold remembers. "Then at one point, she opened her eyes, looked at me, and said, 'Thank you, Vicki.'" Four minutes later, the patient was dead. "To know that I can help bring a moment of peace like that is everything," Wiederhold says.
Seven years ago, when she roughed out a proposal at her kitchen table, Sandra Clarke had no idea her modest plan would become an international program—and little inkling that NODA would have such an effect on volunteers. "It is all
so simple," she says. "Anyone with a heart can do it." Lauren Kessler's latest book is Dancing with Rose: Finding Life in the Land of Alzheimer's (Viking). For more about No One Dies Alone, go to www.peacehealth.org/oregon/noonediesalone.htm.