Volunteers bring comfort, piece of home to palliative care patients and their families

Palliative care volunteers Danny Patterson and Dena Pruski with some of the treats Dena baked for patients and their families on the An Cala palliative care unit at Cape Breton Regional Hospital.

The smell of freshly baked rolls is a sign that things are slowly returning to normal on the An Cala Palliative Care Unit at Cape Breton Regional Hospital.

Like any Cape Breton kitchen, the unit’s kitchen buzzed with activity before COVID-19 but when pandemic measures were put in place, volunteers, including the bakers, weren’t able to visit the unit.

As Nova Scotia continues on the road to COVID-19 recovery, volunteers are starting to return to An Cala and the palliative care service.

“It’s good to be back, it’s a big part of my life,” said Dena Pruski of Island View, East Bay, who has been a volunteer baker for nearly 10 years. “Baking brings the patients comfort, it’s a little piece of home when you’re away from home.”

It’s little extras like fresh baked goods that patients and their families missed during the pandemic said Lynette Sawchuk, program manager of palliative care with Nova Scotia Health’s Eastern Zone.

“Our volunteers are truly part of our team and are seen as such,” she said. “Patient families often talk about how nice it is to have that extra bit of attention or a cup of tea and a cinnamon roll. It brings comfort to them and the patients. Not having those extras and that comfort during COVID-19 was hard on families and patients. It was another loss to cope with, especially for those who experienced the loss of a loved one during the pandemic.”

Even as volunteers return to An Cala, the team is looking ahead to the opening of a new hospice later this year that will also need volunteers.

Danny Patterson of Sydney River, has been a volunteer patient visitor for three years. He and Pruski are among the volunteers who will split their time between An Cala and the new hospice when it opens. He encourages anyone who has some free time to volunteer.

“It’s the best place to volunteer,” he said. “It’s very rewarding and the little things you’re doing can make such a difference for someone.”

Palliative care volunteers can make a difference in many ways said Lisa McNeil-Campbell, palliative care volunteer program lead.

“We have a number of programs that allow our volunteers to provide support to our palliative care patients and families in different ways,” she said. “From being at the bedside to providing entertainment and everything in between.”

While a full list of volunteer programs can be found on the Palliative Care Society of Cape Breton County’s website, there are a few programs that McNeil-Campbell is developing with the new hospice in mind. For example, reception volunteers will greet visitors and help with general administrative duties.

“They will be the first point of contact for anyone coming to the hospice, so we’d love to have some friendly volunteers who are able to help put patients and their families at ease,” she said. “It’s also a great ‘buddy’ volunteer activity where you can buddy up with a friend and volunteer together.”

McNeil-Campbell is also developing a community Helping Hands Brigade.

“Not everyone is comfortable being around patients but they want to help. At the same time, there are a lot of little things that our patients worry about that they may not be able to do themselves like walking the dog, shoveling the driveway, weeding the garden,” she said. “Volunteers in this program can use their skills and abilities to help patients with everyday tasks that they are struggling with and it also takes away so much worry and stress from the patient.”

Another program being developed is the End-Of-Life Comfort Program. Volunteers with this program stay with patients who would otherwise be alone in their last hours of life.

“It’s really hard to put into words just how much comfort being there in those final hours brings to patients,” she said. “Just to know that someone is there, to feel their presence and know you’re not alone, it gives the patients so much peace and comfort and helps make the next step of their journey easier for them.”

For many of the programs, a time commitment of three to four hours each week is needed, while some programs like the Helping Hands Brigade and the End-Of-Life Comfort Program are on an as needed or on-call basis. Locations of the programs also vary as some are provided in the four hospitals within the Cape Breton Regional Municipality, some will be in the hospice and some are in the patient’s home. Training is provided for all programs.

For more information or to apply to be a volunteer, visit https://hospicecapebreton.org/ways-to-give/volunteer-information/ or contact Lisa at 902-567-6468 or lisa.mcneil-campbell@nshealth.ca.