Unsung Heroes: They’ll be there ’til the end

As a vigil volunteer, Judi Belanger is ready and willing to put her own life on hold to sit at the bedside of a patient who might otherwise die alone.

Most would consider that an incredible act of compassion.

Belanger sees it as something else: a privilege.

“It’s a gift, in a sense, to be present at a time of mystery,” said Belanger, a retired nurse who has been volunteering with Hospice of San Luis Obispo County for about nine years doing in-home services.

When Hospice of San Luis Obispo County started a hospital-based vigil volunteers program a couple of years ago, she was right onboard.

“It’s another place where we can do some good,” Belanger said.

Indeed. A core group of about 20 vigil volunteers has been doing an amazing amount of good for the past couple of years by providing comfort and support not only to dying patients, but also to their families.

They talk to patients, read to them, play soothing music, put a cool cloth on patients’ foreheads — or simply sit in silence with them.

“I’ve had patients call them ‘my angels,’ ” said Pam Merica, a registered nurse in charge of the palliative care program at Arroyo Grande Community Hospital.

The vigil program began at Arroyo Grande Community Hospital, with the help of a grant the hospital provided to Hospice of San Luis Obispo County.

The program is in the process of expanding to Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center and French Hospital Medical Center, and Hospice of San Luis Obispo County eventually would like to include convalescent care centers as well.

To set up vigil care, all it takes is a call from the hospital, and Hospice can arrange for round-the-clock shifts at the bedsides of dying patients.

Once they arrive, the volunteers take their cues from the patients. Some patients are eager to talk, vigil volunteer Dick Robb said, while others are comatose and unable to communicate.

Regardless of the patient’s level of awareness, vigil volunteers say it’s important to be there.

“We believe that awareness is not limited to the senses. People still take information even when they’re in a coma. That’s why we believe it’s so important to not die alone,” said Steve Willey, a Hospice staff member who helped start the program.

And yes, there have been occasions when volunteers have initially been rebuffed.

Doris Goodill recalls a time when a patient told her that she didn’t want her to be there.

“I said, ‘OK, I’ll just sit over here,’ ” said Goodill, who realized that the patient wasn’t reacting to her personally, but rather, to the realization that she was dying.

While some patients need vigil care because they have no friends or relatives in the area, that’s typically not the case.

More often, Merica said, a patient may be in the care of an elderly relative who doesn’t have the stamina to maintain a constant vigil.

In such cases, vigil volunteers often wind up providing support to the survivors as well as the patients.

“It’s a comforting thing for the family,” Merica said. “It’s been a wonderful addition.”

We believe the vigil volunteers program is a wonderful addition not only for patients and their families, but for the entire community.

Dying alone is one of our most basic and universal fears; knowing a group of caring individuals is always on call to prevent that from happening is a gift to us all.

With gratitude, we recognize the vigil volunteers of Hospice of San Luis Obispo County as February’s unsung heroes.


Go to www.hospiceslo.org to learn more about vigil volunteers and Hospice of San Luis Obispo County.

Editor’s note: This is another in a series of monthly editorials celebrating the unsung heroes in our community.

By highlighting individuals who unselfishly apply their energy and skills to lighten the burden of others, we hope, first, to offer these community heroes the appreciation they deserve; second, to let those who could use the help know of available resources; and, third, to inspire others who are able to help in whatever way possible.

If you would like to nominate an unsung hero, contact us at letters@thetribunenews.com.