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Friday, June 14, 2024

Juan Serrano volunteers to comfort strangers in their last moments.

Sometimes, he turns the TV on for them. Other times he reads books to them. Most of the time he just watches them take their final breaths.

“At first, you walk in, and the nurses were the ones who were with them before, and they introduce you,” Serrano, 21, said. “’This is the patient’s name; he or she had this disease, and this is happening.’”

At the moment of their deaths, the strangers have no friends or family to be with them, said Serrano, a UF interdisciplinary studies senior. Sometimes family members can’t bear to watch their loved ones die.

Serrano acts as volunteer coordinator for No One Dies Alone, a UF Health Shands Hospital program that matches volunteers with dying patients to ensure they have comforting and dignified deaths.

During a usual shift, he’ll comfort an unresponsive elderly patient who’s hooked up to numerous machines, he said. When the nurses have other patients to help, Serrano is left to offer his presence.

“If they’re unresponsive, it’s not like you can start playing the TV for them or singing to them,” Serrano said. “You’re just there to be a witness most of time.”

He waits, holding the patients’ cracked hands, and watches the patients struggle to live, he said.

“They resign themselves to their fate,” he said. “The body always keeps struggling.”

In those final moments, Serrano is reminded of his own mortality. He thinks about how he’s not going to live forever, and then he hears their last breaths.

“For those, it can be a breath every five minutes so you never know when it can end,” Serrano said. “It’s a process — never a moment.”

He said the skin becomes a little whiter, the lips become pale and the breathing stops.

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“Every time it makes me think, ‘This might be me one day,’” he said. “’Is this what I want? Will there be no one by my side? Volunteers? Family members?’ It’s hard not to think about yourself in that setting, but it’s relieving to know that they’re not suffering anymore.”

Debra Davis, No One Dies Alone’s overseer, said she introduced the program five years ago when she was a new nurse. She said there was a patient dying, and nobody could be with him. She felt like he should have someone with him at the end of life.

“He was an older gentleman who was dying of advanced cancer,” she said. “He was having some difficulty breathing and seemed kind of scared, and he was alone.”

Most of the patients are unresponsive, she said, but volunteers can play music for them, read them religious passages if the patient is religious and hold their hands.

Meghan Pardo, who graduated with a health science degree from UF in May, recalls one volunteer session when she was asked to wet a woman’s mouth.

“I didn’t know how often it needed to be done, so I asked the nurse that,” the 22-year-old said. “And she said, ‘You know, as often as you’d like it to be done to you if you were in her position.’ That was the big teaching lesson that I use a lot now.”

The program has about 20 active volunteers, Serrano said, but he hopes more volunteers will join in the spring.

Students who volunteer are often interested in going into the medical field.

“It helps you decide whether or not you really want to develop that career path,” Janine Cruz, a UF Health Shands nurse, said. “It helps them understand really how important it is to show compassion at all times in their lives, especially when their lives are coming to an end.”

Davis said she has seen changes in the hospital staff since she implemented the program.

“I think the program has really inspired some of the nurses to be more sensitive to patients at the end of life and to develop some unit initiative for patients at the end of life,” she said.

Nurses make blankets for patients and bring flowers and music to their bedsides now.

“It’s to bring more compassion and sensitivity to people at the end of life,” she said.

Family members have expressed gratitude to volunteers for their services.

“If it’s traumatizing and daunting to me to see a total stranger die then how would it be for someone who’s known them for 20 years — who’s been with them for 40 years,” Serrano said.

He said one time an elderly woman sent him a “thank you” card for being with her dying husband.

“She was so happy that when he passed someone was there to be with him in his final moments,” he said.

Volunteer shifts are usually three hours long, and volunteers can be called in six times a day or once a week. Volunteers can decide how often they’d like to be called in based on their schedule.

Students interested in volunteering can contact the UF Shands Volunteer Services Department.

[A version of this story ran on page 8 on 10/21/2014] 

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