October 17, 2016
by Mary York

Jack Pittman on Validating Service & Honoring Legacy, A Hospice Volunteer Spotlight

Hospice Volunteer

Big Bend Hospice Volunteer, Jack Pittman

Sharing the Gift of Legacy

Jack Pittman knows what it means to serve. As a veteran he has served our country for over twenty years and continues to serve his community while in retirement as a hospice volunteer. Initially, hospice was not on his radar in terms of where he wanted to spend his leisure time, but after a short time with the Red Cross and other organizations, he found his heart was not fully present in the work. At the suggestion of a friend, Jack agreed to try the volunteer program at the local hospice. It was here that he found his home and where he felt like he was contributing to his full capacity. Almost immediately, his channeled his talents into the hospice Valor Program.

The Valor Program at Big Bend Hospice honors veterans for their service. Most of the patients Jack visits have served in the Korean or Vietnam wars, whether in service for two or thirty-two years, recognizing every veteran for their contributions. And, the importance of this recognition and validation of life’s work is something that Jack feels passionately about.

“I think there are many rewards of working with veterans, they remind me of the importance of legacy in life,” Jack said.

The Gift of a Legacy Document

The Gift of a Legacy Document

Jack’s special contribution to the Valor Program consists of creating personal life summaries, a legacy document for every veteran. It is presented as part of the bedside ceremony. Recognizing that veterans rarely share their experiences (the good, bad and ugly) with their families, Jack understands the importance of doing so, especially for generations that follow. As a gift to his own family, Jack created a legacy document years ago, sharing highlights of his service in Vietnam and passing those stories along to his grand children.  When he did this, his own son expressed deep gratitude and noted that fear had prevented him from asking Jack questions about his deployment.

The legacy document is one of several validating acts of the valor ceremony. Others include the presentation of a letter and certificate of appreciation, asking a spouse or adult child at the ceremony to attach an honored veteran lapel pin, rendering a formal salute, singing and even belting out one last Army shout, “Hooaah!”.  Jack reminisced about one patient, limited in his ability to communicate; yet, when the patient’s son encouraged him to repeat the “Hooaah!” cry that Jack shouted, he miraculously repeated “Hooooaahh” in a whispered voice.  Another patient, struggling with severe dementia, responded similarly to an invitation to sing the Marine Corp Hymn at the conclusion of his bedside ceremony. Although his eyes wandered and were unfocused, it was the music inspired the patient to sit up straight, at attention, while singing every single word of the hymn! It is experiences like this these that remind Jack of the elevated importance of validating service to country.

Celebrating the Greatest Generation

Celebrating the Greatest Generation

Service to country is something that Jack was unable to explore with his own father who served in WWII. However, through the Valor Program, Jack is honored to celebrate with folks who represent The Greatest Generation, most of whom are now in their late nineties. Their stories are remarkable, from harrowing accounts of an aeronautic door gunner to incidents that induced lifelong PTSD. Of particular importance is the Honor Flight in which hospice provides an opportunity for WWII vets to travel to Washington D.C. to view the war memorials. One patient expressed his longing to see these monuments for a very long time. When he finally did, a peace settled over him and two days later he died.

By witnessing this peace, jack has come to appreciate what hospice does for all his patients. He reflects upon his experiences this way,

“Everybody’s going to die. When it’s my turn, I feel encouraged to know that the care and concern, even the love, that hospice provides will gently ease me out of this life.”

Until then, Jack can’t ever imagine doing something other than being a part of the Hospice Valor Program and celebrating veterans.

“They teach you so much about life and about them….it’s just amazing what they did,” he said.

On behalf of our country and hospice, we thank you for your amazing contributions Jack.

Jack is a volunteer with Big Bend Hospice.

Related Web Links
What the Dying Can Teach Us
How to Speak to Someone About Unspeakable Loss


  • Writing a life legacy is a powerful expression of gratitude for service to country
  • Remember the power of validating the veterans’ service

October 17, 2016
by Mary York

Jack Pittman, Reflection on Duty, Honor and Sacrifice

Our Hospice Spotlight Volunteer Reflections are shared monthly. Reflections are stories of connection and meaning, presented in the volunteer’s own words. Here is Jack Pittman’s Reflection.

Airplane and Veteran

A Tale of Dedication and Honor

“I did one particular Valor ceremony that was profound. The patient had PTSD from his experiences in Vietnam and he had cancer, which was ending his life. When the valor ceremony was over, he said, you are all veterans, I want to share this story with you. He asked his wife to sit on the arm of the recliner and to hold his hand while he reflected. it wasn’t clear that he had ever told this story before but his PTSD started with an incident while in the marines when his battalion was guarding an airbase, and a C130 (which is a plane that carries cargo) was on approach. As it came in for a landing, the plane crashed about a mile short of the runway. He saw the crash and without orders, he just took off running for the plane. He found out later that he had taken off through a minefield to get to the plane. When he went got to the plane he saw that what had happened from the force of the impact, the cargo had shifted and crushed the crew that was in that aircraft. He then went to the tailgate of the aircraft and stayed there with his weapon and watched.

And when he finally was relieved the Lieutenant asked “Why did you do that? Why did you stay there and guard people who had died?”

He said, “I did that because I didn’t want any enemy soldiers coming in and taking personal belongings from them as trophies. I kept them safe from that.”

And then he cried. That was the source of his PTSD and he never got over that. The patient died a couple of days after telling that story.”

Read Jack Pittman’s Spotlight

September 20, 2016
by Mary York

Cathe Keres & Paws of Comfort, Pats of Pleasure, A Hospice Volunteer Spotlight


JourneyCare Volunteer, Cathe Keres

A Visit from Clancy Provides Much Needed Hope and Comfort

The journey to hospice volunteer work includes some long-standing roots with Cathe Keres. Thirteen years ago, her mother was in the care of hospice and she remembers the experience as comforting and beautiful.  Regrettably, when her father passed twelve years earlier, he did not have the same opportunity to connect with the local hospice. More than ten years ago, fate stepped in, formally connecting Cathe to hospice.

Attempting to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest (having served as the long-time caterer for the local hospice), Cathe remained silent about her desire to volunteer. But years later, the silence ended when she, and her newly certified pet therapy dog, Clancy, ventured into hospice volunteer service.

Clancy, a docile yellow lab, and Cathe now make weekly visits to the in-patient hospice unit. Over the years, she has seen Clancy motivate and offer hope and comfort for patients along with emotional support, including pure joy. And, patients aren’t the only recipients of these pleasures; often times, the hospice staff will seek the dog out, giving Clancy a treat and loving pat on the head, a much need playful break from demanding day of patient care responsibilities.

The special connection between people and dogs is undeniable. But, Cathe’s experiences with Clancy go beyond that universal bond. She recalled one patient, seriously declining in health, yet determined to get out of bed and dress for the dog’s visits, walking to the corner of her street to introduce Clancy to the neighbors.  This interaction developed over weeks and Cathe took a photo of patient and Clancy together. Little did Cathe expect that this photo would be the centerpiece of the woman’s memorial board at her funeral service. And, that the family made a donation in Clancy’s name, to the Therapy Dog International organization.

Therapy Dog

Clancy, A Dog Delivering Comfort

Cathe has also made short-term visits with Clancy, which have been similarly profound. For one family, Clancy filled the void of a much-loved and missed family dog, a circumstance of moving from over seas to the United States for patient care. For another gentleman, it was Clancy who provided him comfort in his last hours, the man stroking the dog’s head, triggering reclaiming of lost speech, uttering Clancy, his last words.

Not only has Clancy provided comfort to the “hospice organization family”, but he has also provided Cathe with the opportunity to observe and interact with those at the end of their lives. These experiences force her to reflect upon her existence and the manner in which she leads her life. Often times, it is the younger hospice patients that give her the most pause for thought.

During her own mother’s time in the care of hospice, Cathe remembered her saying, “We are all stepping toward death the moment we are born”.

And Cathe knows that the gift of perspective is such a treasured gift, one she receives each time hooks the leash to Clancy’s collar and journeys out the door together to see a patient.

“When mortality stares you in the face, it brings it back home, coming full circle. It makes you realize that one day it will be you,”  Cathe said.

Until then, Cathe and Clancy are grateful for the opportunity to deliver daily comfort and joy to hospice patients, enriching their end of life journeys.

Related Web Links
Pet Therapy Infographic
Ping Pong, the Dog Who Brings Compassion to Those Who Need it Most


  • The presence of pets provide undeniable healing
  • Remember that we are all stepping toward death from the moment we are born.

September 20, 2016
by Mary York

Cathe Keres, Reflection on Loving Clancy the Therapy Dog

Our Hospice Spotlight Volunteer Reflections are shared periodically. Reflections are stories of connection and meaning, presented in the volunteer’s own words. Here is Cathe Kere’s Reflection.

Therapy Dog

Clancy and His Loving Admirer

Loving a Therapy Dog Inspires Hope in Patient

I have a great story about one patient Clancy and I visited. This patient wanted a visit from a dog, and she only wanted a large dog. She fell instantly in love with Clancy. Although aided by continuous oxygen and monitored by her 24-hour caretakers, the patient couldn’t take her eyes off of Clancy during his visits. She had to pet him constantly and requested that we come every week. So, every Wednesday thereafter, for months, Clancy and I would arrive at her doorstep. One day, she wanted her neighbors to see Clancy, so she took out her walker and walked to the corner, sat down and then waited for people to come by. When nobody stopped, she walked to the other corner until the neighbors finally stopped and chatted with her about the dog and of how beautiful he was to her. The next week she greeted us sitting in a chair outside, and when the neighbors came by again, I took a picture of her sitting with Clancy. The picture was a small gift to her the next time I visited. That was the last time I saw her because she passed away suddenly one week later. Her spouse told me how much she loved Clancy. He said there were days when she would say she didn’t feel like getting up, and he would get ready to cancel Clancy’s visit, but then she would get up and get dressed to wait for him.

I was invited to the service for this patient and there were about 30 people in the room, all of them familiar with Clancy and his effect on the patient. At the family’s request, I went to my car to get Clancy and when we walked into the room everybody turned, looked at us in the doorway and greeted Clancy. It was crazy! So, I walked around and introduced him to the family members and we stayed for 15 minutes. Later, I got a notice that the family made a donation in Clancy’s name to our therapy dog organization. To make that impact on one person, that was just incredible to see!

August 15, 2016
by Mary York

Kurt Rogahn, Serving Others Through Friendship, A Hospice Volunteer Spotlight

hospice volunteer

Unity Point Hospice Volunteer, Kurt Rogahn

Exercising Compassion and Building Friendships

When I talked with Kurt Rogahn, I sensed some hesitation about sharing the rewards of hospice volunteer work.
One might assume his reluctance was rooted in the sadness related to hospice work, but nothing could be further from the truth. What does, however, lay in the center of Kurt’s heart is service to others, giving back to his community and the innate rewards of those efforts, none of which he perceives as self-serving. He describes his approach to hospice volunteer work this way:

“Sometimes it’s just a matter of being there; the courage to be there really opens up all these other possibilities,” he commented.


Exercising a Helping Hand

Being there for others is important to Kurt and supports his belief of worldly reciprocity. Years ago, when his own father was dying of cancer, geographic distance did not allow for Kurt to be available. Nor was hospice service available to his father. Becoming a hospice volunteer where he lived was a way in which Kurt could make up for it. When pressed to describe how he has changed since volunteering for hospice, Kurt does acknowledge that the work draws upon characteristics that are not necessarily his everyday strengths.

“You can’t help but have that softer side come out,” he says.

Being an active person, leading a fast-paced life and sometimes accused of being blunt by nature (honest yet loving feedback from family members), Kurt believes he has learned to slow down, be present and more tempered with his opinions. He likens his volunteer work to physical exercise, where sensory and intuitive parts of his modest personality, ones that don’t always get a strong workout, build up strength.
This strength sometimes comes from assisting with mundane tasks. Whether it is cleaning an electric razor for a patient or reading the sports section of the paper aloud, Kurt exercises helpfulness.

He also builds his intellect. Drawing upon his skills as a long time journalist and writer, Kurt reminisced about helping a patient finish a book project, completing the unfinished manuscript and then presenting it to the patient’s family. Another patient asked hospice for a volunteer to help him create a series of videotaped messages for his family to view after his death. Hospice assigned Kurt.

Mostly, however, Kurt aims for careful listening, exercising compassion, building connection, and demonstrating genuine friendship with his patients.

“I go in to see a patients and I make friends. I make a friend that happens to be sick and yes, that person is at the end of their life, but if I go in and provide a distraction for that person, that is a good thing,” he says.


Documenting Life Stories

Borrowing on his journalistic talents, Kurt draws people out with inquisitive questions and becomes a new audience for old stories. For him, a simple inquiry, tell me about your family, results in receiving descriptions of a sea of experiences and life memories.
What is your favorite book?, another a great question Kurt poses to his patients, often leading to interesting interactions. One elderly woman once asked Kurt to read her beloved series of Christian romance novels aloud. They both enjoyed a laugh over Kurt’s masculine voice portraying the heroine, saying…”He came toward me with a fun sort of glow in his eyes.” These kind of light-hearted encounters are balanced by the more serious. Kurt recalled one woman who wanted to focus her energies solely on the Bible, and with Kurt at her side, they engaged in meaningful theological discussions. Wherever patients decide to venture intellectually, Kurt is right by their side.

From the mundane to the sublime, patients can always depend on Kurt—a journalist at heart with a heart for the journey.

Kurt Rogahn is a hospice volunteer for Unity Point Hospice of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has been a volunteer since February 2005. A former newspaper reporter and editor, he is a senior proposal writer with Pearson Education in Iowa City, Iowa. He and his wife, Lynn, a retired teacher, have two grown children and three grandchildren.

Related Web Links
Why You Should Be Nice
Why Use Storytelling in Palliative Care


  • Exercise the courage to show up
  • Make service to others a commitment
  • Remember the value of building friendships

July 10, 2016
by Mary York

Julie Engstrom & Honoring Patients With an Open Heart, A Hospice Volunteer Spotlight

Hospice Volunteer

Hospice of the Valley Volunteer, Julie Engstrom

Breathing in Stillness and Honoring Life

Hospice volunteering is a natural extension to the work Julie Engstrom has dedicated herself to most of her life, advocating for patients and facilitating communication between caregivers in a hospital setting. She described facilitating “moments of normalcy” for patients in the hospital and now she applies that same skill to patients in the care of hospice, sharing a unique perspective on what she receives from the experience.

One of those perspectives is the importance of honoring the patient by taking a moment to notice and receive the space they occupy

Hospice Volunteer Honors Space

Honoring a Sacred Space

“I feel I need to open my heart when I enter a patient’s room/house, whether it be a bedroom or a living room, I take time to breathe in the photos, medicine bottles, pads, diapers or machines—all are part of their sacred space.” Julie said.

Knowing that a patient has invited Julie, as a volunteer, to share the last phase of their existence humbles her immensely. A tremendous feeling of gratitude fills her heart when she visits a patient, knowing they are giving her a precious gift of vulnerability and love, an act of kindness that permeates into her own relationships with friends and family.

The other gift Julie receives, through observation, is the knowledge that each person dies the way they lived. She describes the process of what is the end of life for her mother-in-law, one of peace, quiet visits with immediate family, and limited material distractions. Simplicity and depth is what she treasured about life, and it is what she wants in the end as well. In contrast, Julie, a gregarious and fun-loving person at heart, wishes for celebration, hugs, upbeat music—a very different experience than the one preferred by her mother-in-law. As individual as these end of life choices are, Julie has learned to honor them all.

What is universal in Julie’s experience however, is a sense of quiet that is inherent in hospice work. The accelerating pace of life and wish to fill every waking moment slows down when Julie visits a patient. This ability to invite stillness in, through silence, smell and even observation is a special gift of simply being present and Julie treasures this aspect of her work.

Julie said, “I believe I’m there to help the families breathe.”

Sometimes these times of breathing allow space for reflection and discovery for patients. Julie described a woman who was struggling with the guilt of burdening her caretaker husband. By providing a space for her to talk, the woman realized allowing her husband to care for her was providing him with the gift of purpose, meaning and an avenue for displaying his deep love and affection. These epiphanies can often emerge from quiet moments of stillness.

Stillness and Peace

Inviting in Stillness

Julie said, “The joy in hospice volunteering comes from opening my heart to vulnerability and absorbing the burden of worry, sorrow or pain of the moment and transforming that energy back into a nurturing, quiet and gentle presence.”

This ability to open her heart and share her nurturing spirit with others is something Julie treasures in her own life. She described the simple act of sitting with her husband and son, saying nothing at all, all the while savoring that time together.

I savored my discussion with Julie as well. Her ability to open her heart and stay wholly present is the special gift she shares with others, especially her hospice patients, taking time to truly honor them in the last phase of their lives.

Julie Engstrom is a volunteer with Hospice of the Valley and the Co-Founder of Beyond Fear to Freedom, a faith-based organization, providing authentic experiences of community for women.

Related Web Links
What It Really Means to Hold Space
Speaking Words of Wisdom-Let It Be
Things People Don’t Regret


  • Notice and honor the space people occupy
  • Breathe and invite in quiet moments of stillness

June 15, 2016
by Mary York

Ann Neumann, A Daughter’s Loss Leads to Exploration of Death, A Hospice Volunteer Spotlight

Ann Neumann

Hospice Volunteer, Ann Neumann

Understanding Loss and Exploring the “Good Death”

When I speak with hospice volunteers, I strive to fully understand what it means to be human, exploring end of life experiences, often revealed through patients’ unveiled windows within. These discoveries are beautiful, profound and generally appear in the foreground when peering through the window. However, when I talked with Ann Neumann, her expansive observations unveiled elusive layers of foreground, middle ground and background, all residing in the expansive landscape, similar to features within an artistic masterpiece, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait, the Mona Lisa.

Mona Lisa face

At First Glance, Recognizing Love

At first glance, one notices the beautiful and mysterious face in the famous portrait, a reaction that is similar to the immediate sense of gratitude hospice volunteers feel for the privilege of serving a dying patient. Ann described the universal experience of people becoming “essentialized” near death, a state of being that can alter or readjust their long held priorities and needs. Love is, by far, in the foreground of Ann’s hospice experiences, but it’s not the sentimental love that is so often projected onto the dying.

“I’ve loved and lost beautiful people from every possible walk of life, to a host of diseases. Every one was different and this has been incredibly enriching-just knowing these people who I otherwise wouldn’t. To me, that’s probably the best thing about being a hospice volunteer,” she says.

The word loved is effortlessly integrated within her well-expressed sentiments. For Ann, learning how to love unconditionally is equally present in the foreground of her experiences at hospice.

“In many ways, I learned how to love, how to love unconditionally,” she notes.

Unconditional love for Ann simply means being present–for the moments of listening to a patient’s life reflections, of sitting together in silence, of responding for help when pain levels increase and of participating in family celebrations.

Mona Lisa Background

Noticing the Details

However, beyond these heart-warming experiences with hospice patients, Ann noted other aspects, often appearing in the middle ground and sometimes easily overlooked. Ann talked about her own father’s illness and the months leading up to his death. Unlike the Hallmark version of death (often portrayed in the movies), Ann found herself face to face with the stark reality of administering 24/7 sleep-deprived care, hindered with continuous cycles of cleaning, administration and modifications of medications, changing of soiled sheets and preparations of meals. Soon, a sense of helplessness, infused with anger, emerged for Ann as she observed the subtle changes taking place from day to day while realizing that she was greatly unprepared for his death. Ann remembered feeling as if society had let her down, shielded her from learning how to cope with this most basic and universal of human experiences.

“The actuality of death is not an idealized experience…when you acknowledge that someone is going, that they will not be here in weeks or days, that permanence is a kind of knowledge you cannot get any other way. The permanence of death,” she said.

Mona Lisa Face and Background

Exploration Reveals Overall Context

After struggling for a year with the circumstances around her father’s death, Ann embarked on an eight year quest for knowledge and understanding, fully immersing herself into hospice volunteer work and scholarly research, exploring religious, cultural and medical aspects related to the end of life. Her journey culminated with the recent release of her critically acclaimed book, The Good Death: An Exploration of Dying in America. While she fully acknowledges the variations within end of life experiences in her book, it is the examination of the overall context, the ethical and moral issues that shape the state of dying in the US today, that are engaged in The Good Death.

“Most important to me, and you will hear it again and again in my writing, is the disparity that exists around end of life care,” Ann said.

These disparities are visible to all who stop to observe: the underpaid and undocumented caretakers; the variations in care quality relative to monetary means, and the limited access to medical services and/or basic health insurance for thousands of people in America. The following profound message remains close to Ann’s heart:

“The way we treat our fellow human being in this country—and who we treat poorly—is an absolute tragedy. I’ve seen it again and again at the end of life. In my book, there are beautiful stories of lovely deaths and lovely people who I’ve known but that’s not everyone-that’s a very small privileged group. When we are talking about end of life care, we should be talking about every one of us.”

Ann’s hope is that we all begin to see the complete picture, observing the subtle layers of foreground, middle ground and background, a death with dignity and respect for all.

As we continue to serve the dying, may Ann’s observations heighten our own awareness and move us to act and influence social change.

Ann Neumann is a hospice volunteer in New York City and the author of The Good Death: An Exploration of Dying in America (Beacon, 2016) and a visiting scholar at The Center for Religion and Media at New York University. Her work has appeared at The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Baffler, BookForum, New York Law Review, Guernica magazine (where she is a contributing editor) and other publications.

Related Web Links
The Good Death by Ann Neumann, A Fascinating New Book
Life Expectancy Inequality Grows in America
The Emergence of Death and Dying As We Know It


  • Notice disparities and promote equality
  • Understand the realities of death, not the Hollywood version
  • Envision death with respect and dignity for all

May 31, 2016
by Mary York

Marilyn McEntyre, Reflection on Dementia & Anchoring to the Familiar

Our Hospice Spotlight Volunteer Reflections are shared monthly. Reflections are stories of connection and meaning, presented in the volunteer’s own words. Here is Marilyn McEntyre’s Reflection.

Dementia and Finding Ways of Connecting

My experience with people who have been in various stages of dementia is that it’s a challenge to find a tone of voice, trigger words or some way of being present to them that is soothing. Because it often manifests as anxiety, I feel like the challenge is in meeting them where they are even if it’s just some tactile way. I remember one woman reorganizing jewelry in her drawer, putting the earrings here and the necklaces there and putting them in boxes; These actions somehow anchored her to familiar, away from language into some other way of connecting. That’s a learning curve. It’s like learning sign language.

Girl Reading

Finding the Rhythm Within Words

Similarly, I witnessed something interesting when I was visiting my mother in the last years of her life in assisted living. She had a mild form of dementia. At that time we had a program in the English department where I taught where students would visit nursing homes and read allowed to residents. There was a woman who was a neighbor of my Mom’s in the next department. She had been a high school English teacher for many years and one day received a visit from one of these students. Their instructions had been to read anything you want to read, from Dr. Seuss to the sonnets of Shakespeare –just see if they’re responsive or not. If not, read something else. The student had been in a romantic’s class where they were reading Keats so she brought in the Eves of St. Agnes (a very long story poem by Keats). The piece had a definite rhythm, a strong rhythm and my mom’s friend was on the edge of her chair. She was just riveted by this lengthy poem (one that I’m sure many students would go to sleep over). But, she just didn’t budge until the whole thing was done. And, then she responded in a complete sentence saying,“That was wonderful. That is the best way I’ve heard that read for many years.”
The rhythm had some how brought her alive.

Read Marilyn McEntyre’s Spotlight

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