Viewing it as a natural expansion of her team's work to provide comfort care to patients living with all stages of chronic illnesses, including end of life, she tasked social worker Sarah Smart with helping establish such a program at Ascension Via Christi's Wichita hospitals.
"I already was doing it with comfort care patients because I could not stand to see them die alone," says Smart, who joined the Palliative Care team at Ascension Via Christi in June 2019.
Smart, along with the staff chaplains, would take time to sit with patients who had no one with them during their final moments. The plan had been to recruit and train an on-call group of Ascension Via Christi Volunteers willing to provide that bedside presence to patients facing imminent death. Then came COVID-19, which led to a suspension of volunteers' services and visitation restrictions, particularly in the units dedicated to caring for patients infected by the new coronavirus.
So with Speer's support, Smart launched the program with a different group of volunteers: Associates willing to spend their personal time sitting with patients and holding their hands during their final hours.
It began in late September 2020 in the MICU-turned-COVID-19 ICU at Ascension Via Christi St. Francis, where families often could not be at the bedside for reasons ranging from their personal health status to an inability to travel or get to the hospital in time. Soon after, it was expanded to all Ascension Via Christi's Wichita hospitals.
The program now has nearly 50 on-call volunteers, including clinicians, non-clinical associates, frontline staff, senior executives, as well as some members of the Ascension Via Christi Volunteers-Partners in Caring program. Collectively, they spent more than 160 hours at the bedsides of the more than 60 patients served by the NODA program so far.
While the Wichita hospital campus, type of illness and the patient's family circumstances may vary, each has had volunteers there to hold their hand and talk with, helping them not to be afraid.
Smart, who has a background in hospice care, provides individual training to associates and to members of Ascension Via Christi Volunteers-Partners in Caring through a formal training module she developed. "Before COVID-19, we still had people dying alone," says Smart. "They were homeless, addicts, people who had burned a lot of bridges or whose choices in life had led to family estrangement. They also were people who never had children or siblings, whose parents were deceased or who simply have no local family or family with the ability to travel for health or financial reasons."
As for giving of yourself and personal time to provide peace to the dying, "There is no better way to live our mission than to this," says Smart.