The date is lodged in Erin’s Long mind. She doesn’t need to comb through records or consult a calendar.
“It was March 16,” the Hospice of the Northwest volunteer coordinator said confidently, remembering the day in 2020 the organization’s volunteers could no longer go to patients’ homes and care facilities because of the threat of COVID-19.
The Hospice of the Northwest serves terminally ill patients and their families throughout four counties, including Skagit.
While there’s a staff to manage care and support for patients, much of the work is done by a core group of volunteers who help out by doing such things as sitting with bedridden patients, bringing therapy animals for a visit, playing music for patients, accompanying them on walks, checking in by phone and cleaning litter boxes.
Long and others say that COVID-19 tested the organization’s volunteers. It also made more clear the importance of the work they do.
“This is making a difference at such a basic, human level. There’s no pretense. Everything is stripped away. It’s just a beautiful, human-to-human connection,” Long said of the connection forged between volunteers and patients.
Hospice of the Northwest, which was founded in 1989, serves dozens of patients in local care facilities and homes. Long said the organization even provides services for homeless individuals; one recent patient lived in his truck.
The hospice has about 90 staff members, and in January of 2020, shortly before COVID-19 began ramping up, it had about an equal number of volunteers.
As the pandemic worsened, Long said, uncertainly swirled. Volunteers didn’t know if they should go into homes or facilities.
“There was so much uncertainty and fear,” she said. “They didn’t want to be responsible for bringing an unknown virus into a patient’s home. That was their biggest fear.”
Even more uncertainty was introduced by rules instituted for long-term care facilities. The rules changed often and sometimes varied from facility to facility.
For several months, volunteers weren’t permitted in care facilities or homes, although they could still make contact with patients by phone. When infection rates began to drop, they urged management to allow them to enter the field again, albeit with extensive safety protocols in place.
Several volunteers spoke to the Skagit Valley Herald about their experiences during the pandemic and with hospice overall.
Kelly McKnight, La Conner
McKnight remembers many things from her mother’s final illness and death, such as her mother’s resilience.
McKnight also remembers the patience and kindness of the hospice volunteer who was there to help.
“He came and talked to us, gave us grace. He talked about the dying process, asked how we were doing,” McKnight said.
McKnight remembers thinking that this was something she felt like she could do. So she did.
McKnight went through training in 2018 to become a volunteer. She became what is called vigil volunteer, one who is with a patient in what’s expected to be the last 48 hours of their life.
“No one should have to die alone,” McKnight said.
When the first patient McKnight sat with died, it was a powerful experience.
“It was sad but so fulfilling. It’s like someone giving birth ... watching someone try to die. It’s hard work. To participate in that and perhaps give comfort is such a gift to me,” McKnight said.
The volunteer work has sent McKnight as far as Langley and Camano Island. Remembering how she found aspects of healing when telling stories about her mother, as a volunteer McKnight gives family members of hospice patients the opportunity to tell their own stories.
That was quelled when COVID-19 arrived.
“It was a very frightening time ... not being able to volunteer,” McKnight said.
When she was able to visit patients again, things were much different.
“You do a vigil, and you’re covered head to toe — face screen, goggles, everything. Every inch of my body is covered in that blue protective gear, and I’m sitting with someone who’s dying,” she said. “It felt confusing to me. It felt sad. If the person had woken up they’d see a blue blob, because that was what was required ... It was odd to visit that way.”
McKnight said some restrictions have been eased. She’s still happy to follow any of them as long as she can help patients and their families.
“I can wear a mask and see my people,” she said.
Rose Mallon, Anacortes
When COVID-19 curtailed the opportunities of hospice volunteers to visit patients, Mallon focused on making connections bye phone.
Mallon, who started as a hospice volunteer while living in the Chicago are, remembers the first patient she sat with, an elderly woman who lived with family.
“We chatted the whole time. We talked about her life ... she’d come here from Europe and we talked about her life here, her brothers and sisters,” Mallon said.
Mallon remembers how suddenly the pandemic seemed to arrive and make things more tense.
“In March of last year, (my husband and I) had plans to go to Texas and when we were there everything blew up. It was so so nerve-racking to come back from Texas. It taught us to stay put,” she said.
Mallon had joined what the local hospice calls its tuck-in program, where volunteers call patients before the weekend to see if there are any issues that may need attention over the weekend, such as new symptoms or medication refills.
The phone calls that became the norm when visits weren’t allowed brought about closer connections.
“Our calls — when I first started, they was more perfunctory. Last year our calls became ... deeper, I guess,” Mallon said. “There were things they’d talk about to us because they needed to talk.”
She credits Long with adding a question to the callers’ script that asks patients whether there are any needs that can be passed along to other members of the caregiver team, such as social workers or spiritual advisers.
“When you’re not with a person, you can develop relationships with people over the phone. I didn’t miss out on (visits) because I had the phone calls,” Mallon said. “It’s a nice feeling to know you’re helping. People drawn to hospice volunteering are drawn to that aspect of it. I was lucky to do tuck-in phone calls that filled that need.”
Richard Fink, Oak Harbor
Fink is a Navy veteran. When he began volunteering with hospice, he and a staff member came up with a way to honor patients who were veterans of the armed service.
The service — performed with the patient’s consent — is called a pinning ceremony, and involves a flag pin, a certificate customized to the patient’s experience in the military and a what is called a challenge coin that reflects the veteran’s branch of the military.
“We ask if they’d like to say something; most of time they’re not communicative, but I’ll tell you the response we get from them sometimes is outstanding,” Fink said. “Sometimes they wake up, and someone hasn’t spoken in six months may say a few words ... I’m convinced they understand what’s going on.
“We did one last week and the family was crying more than the patient. It was also his 94th birthday.”
Fink is often accompanied at pinning ceremonies by other volunteers who are veterans, and is sometimes joined by those on active duty.
He said COVID-19 prevented pinning ceremonies from being held for a while. One wasn’t able to be held, and the patient died before it could be rescheduled.
“Those things happen. You can never tell,” Fink said.
At times, Fink said he did the ceremony in a gown, gloves and other safety gear.
He said, “I looked more like I was coming out the surgical suite than a hospice volunteer.”
— This story is part of an occasional series on how this community is pushing forward — through and eventually past — the COVID-19 pandemic that reached Skagit County in March 2020.