PANA — In the last few days of her life, Virginia Ferguson had not spoken much. A couple of hospice volunteers walked into her room one day, and she greeted them with “Good morning.” Two simple words the family was happy to hear.
“They would talk about being in the war,” her daughter Lisa Ferguson said of the volunteers' time. “And she loved playing cards.”
Opening up, reliving the stories and simply having company, a kindred spirit, can help make those final days something less painful to bear, say volunteers of a program called “No Veteran Will Die Alone,” through which veterans visit other veterans in hospice care.
Virginia Ferguson was a Navy pharmacist technician during World War II. She went on to nursing school and was employed at the Pana Community Hospital for 35 years as registered nurse.
Hospice volunteers provided her and her family with assistance during the final stages of her life. Volunteers often help with household chores, transportation, comfort and compassion. The group of veterans visited many times during her illness simply sitting, talking and visiting before her death July 11 of congestive heart failure at the age of 94.
No Veteran Will Die Alone is a group of 13 men who spend time with veterans in hospice care with Quad County Home Health and Hospice. The volunteers serve four counties: Christian, Shelby, Fayette and Montgomery. A social worker communicates with the hospital and the families offering the special service.
Through hospice, Virginia Ferguson's family was able to receive assistance for her care, and No Veteran Left Behind provided health care items such as a wheelchair, a bed and a patient lift.
“If it wasn’t for the veterans, we wouldn’t have been able to keep her at home,” Lisa Ferguson said.
Volunteer Erich Weidemiller, vice commander of Sons of the American Legion, said the key is getting the patient to open up.
“You just have to start in one place and build on that,” he said. “Sometimes, they feel we are the only ones they can trust.”
“With everyone that has served, we thought this would be good for the area,” said Carol Chandler, Quad County director with Pana Community Hospital. Chandler was inspired by a similar volunteer program in Chicago two years ago.
Jack Moss, chaplain and Vietnam War Navy veteran, has volunteered for the program since it began. He said he notices veterans in hospice care understand they are speaking with someone who has had similar experiences.
“Their families can’t relate to them,” he said.
Richard Simms, Marine Corps Vietnam War veteran describes his time with hospice veterans as exhilarating.
“We are all very proud,” he said. “They make you excited about this.”
Simms has found a a hospice patient may not talk about their time in the military until a fellow veteran is with them.
“They want to talk,” he said. “It is something they don’t normally do until we come in.”
Army veteran Mickey Clemons recently visited an Air Force veteran who happened to be a motorcycle enthusiast, and the men reminisced about both.
“He loved to talk about his Harley-Davidson,” Clemons said. “And he loved to talk about working on the aircraft.”
During his visits, Clemons learned more about history, just by sitting and listening.
“The stories that they tell are fascinating,” he said.
Earl Baker is the commander of the Sons of the American Legion and a volunteer for No Veteran Will Die Alone. Baker's father was a World War II Navy veteran, and he said he is aware of the emotions, the need for veterans to tell their stories. He said finding the common interest between the two veterans is important, and they building a relationship through the process.
“If you are going to be with these people on a weekly or biweekly basis, it can be emotional,” Baker said.
A popular part of the program is the pinning ceremony. Before the visits are scheduled, Quad County volunteer coordinator Rachael Flesch-Springate contacts the family and offers the service.
“Because obviously it’s not about us,” Flesch-Springate said. “It’s about the veteran in hospice.” During the ceremony the veteran will receive an American flag pin, a military branch pin, a blanket and pillow featuring their branch and a laminated certificate with a salute from the visiting veterans.
The volunteers march into the room for the ceremony wearing black pants and white shirts. The volunteer chaplain offers a prayer, and music is provided. Another veteran will speak during the ceremony before presenting the pins, and the event ends with refreshments.
“We want it to be a celebration for them,” Flesch-Springage said. “But we don’t stay long. We don’t want to wear anybody out.”
Army veteran Roger Swim often sees a difference in the patient during the ceremony.
“When we go in (for the pinning ceremony), they don’t know what it is about.” he said. “Then we do the ceremony, and they just come alive.”
The volunteers understand their visits are important, especially toward the end of a person's life. One or two volunteers will periodically visit the veteran, staying 20 to 30 minutes.
“Sometimes, they don’t want you to leave,” Moss said.
If the veteran was in a war, they may have had to protect themselves by any means in a life-or-death situation, continuing to bear those emotional and physical scars.
“Another vet is not going to judge that,” Flesch-Springate said. “They are going to relate to it.”
The help offered by the veterans often goes beyond the patient. The caregivers and families find relief as well. Because of the contacts and relationships the volunteers have forged, they often continue helping the family after the veteran has passed away.
The volunteers say it as an honor to help those who served before them.
“Maybe someone will be there for me,” Army veteran Joseph Marley said.