No One Dies Alone marks a milestone

Retired Sacred Heart Nurse Sandra Clarke can only name a handful of the dozens, maybe hundreds, of hospitals and other health-care organizations that took her idea and ran with it.

“It’s not copyrighted,” she said with a laugh. “We only hear about it by accident.”

And that’s OK with her. Clarke knows that No One Dies Alone—a groundbreaking end-of-life program that began at Sacred Heart Medical Center 10 years ago this November—has traveled far and wide, bringing comfort to thousands of patients who were dying and alone and changing the lives of the volunteers who sit at their bedsides.
Clarke recently returned to Sacred Heart to celebrate the program’s milestone, as well as the memory of the individuals who have been its beneficiaries.

“It was such a simple idea,” she told a luncheon audience of some two-dozen volunteers. “A phone tree is what it is.”

The seed for No One Dies Alone was sown in 1986, when Clarke—then in the dawn of her career as a Registered Nurse at Sacred Heart—was working the night shift in the Intensive Care Unit.

Making rounds, she visited an elderly man with a “Do Not Resuscitate” order. Death was near, Clarke knew—and the patient seemed to know as well. In a voice barely audible, he asked if she would stay by his side. She apologized, explaining she had other patients to see, but promised to come back. When she returned a little more than an hour later, he was dead.

“I was so upset,” she recalled. “I never forgot that.”

She was struck by the fact that his caregivers could have prolonged his life with medical interventions, “but we couldn’t give the simple gift of respect and dignity at the end of life.”

For the next 16 years, the episode nagged at her conscience. She thought there must be some way to ensure that dying patients who may have outlived their loved ones, or are estranged, or are otherwise alone in their last hours, have a companion at their bedside—even a total stranger willing to volunteer. She frequently mentioned it to colleagues, who all agreed it was a great idea.

But the organizational momentum to actually launch such a program just wasn’t there—not until Bob Scheri, Director of Mission Integration and Spiritual Care at Sacred Heart, overheard Clarke discussing the idea with another caregiver on day.

“Write up a proposal,” he told her.  A few months later they got the green light, and on Nov. 27, 2001, the fledgling group of volunteers got its first call to a vigil, via email. Nancy Garrett, Sacred Heart’s Supervisor of Patient Registration, sat with that first patient, and estimates she’s been part of 30 of the program’s 248 vigils over the last 10 years. She’s among 1,583 who have volunteered with the program; currently, the pool stands at about 60.

“Being part of NODA is a true privilege, and it is an absolute honor to be with someone as they leave this world,” she said. “The part that is most difficult is I want to know about the person. What was their life?  It is a blessing to share that most sacred moment as they take their last breath.  It makes me appreciate life that much more!”

Clarke stayed active in the program, attending dozens of vigils, until she reluctantly retired from Sacred Heart in 2009 to care for her disabled husband. The couple moved to Portland, which has a thriving chapter of No One Dies Alone, run through Signature Hospice.

Carleen McCornack, who coordinates the program, estimates she’s answered approximately 1,500 requests for Sacred Heart’s free guide to launching a No One Dies Alone program—though she’s not sure how many of those have come to fruition.

Clarke, who cries and hugs readily and sports a purple streak in her stylish silver hair, said she’s humbled by the program’s growth—and she finds solace in the fact that so many other organizations have recognized its value.
“Who would have believed this when we started?” she said.

If you’re interested in learning more or volunteering with No One Dies Alone, click this link.