It was in 2005, when I was in my fourth year of studies to become a deacon, that I was required to volunteer for a community service experience. As deacon candidates, we were encouraged to find a volunteer experience that would take us out of our comfort zones.
About the same time, I saw a church bulletin announcement that the Hospice Unit at Middlesex Hospital was looking for volunteers. I had no experience ministering to terminally ill patients and had never witnessed the end of a person’s life. After completion of a 40-hour hospice training program, I became a weekly Wednesday volunteer in the hospice unit at Middlesex Hospital. At the time, I saw volunteering in hospice as an experience that would greatly enrich my ability as a deacon to offer compassionate care and support for the dying and their families.
It was very emotionally challenging but also extremely rewarding. Before heading to the hospice, I would always go to the hospital chapel to spend some time in prayer, asking the Lord to calm any anxieties I was feeling that day and asking Him to use me as an instrument of His peace.
The power of prayer never failed. I always felt comforted and guided by the Holy Spirit.
Some of my initial volunteer responsibilities were to help feed patients who required assistance, aiding nurses in bathing patients and changing their bedding, sitting with patients, sometimes praying with them, sometimes just listening and holding a patient’s hand.
The first time I saw a patient die was when I was gathering clean towels and linen from a storage closet in preparation to help a nurse bathe another patient. Across from the storage closet was a patient’s room, with a rollaway bed. Earlier that morning I saw a young woman sitting on the bed.
Putting the fresh linen down I felt moved ( I call this my Holy Spirit wind experience) to enter that patient’s room, where I found an elderly man lying in his hospital bed, appearing to be in a deep sleep. I touched the man’s hand and introduced myself, to see if he would respond. Within seconds, the man opened his mouth wide and exhaled what would be his last breath.
It turned out the young woman was the deceased man’s daughter, and had spent the past four days staying in the room with her father. She had left the room that morning to get a cup of coffee and she was deeply appreciative of my being with her dad as he died, telling me that her dad always said that he didn’t want to die alone.
Another patient, John, was a mail carrier in New York City for many years, and near the end of his life, he had moved to Middletown, to live with his sister. On this day in his hospital room, John was alone and I spent about 45 minutes holding his hand and feeding him ice chips to help soothe his throat, as he could barely speak. John had lung cancer that spread to several other organs, and his death was imminent.
I told John that unfortunately I had to leave and as I gave his hand a final squeeze, the words “Love you” popped out of me and John then whispered, “Love you too.” This to me was one of those divine moments, a prompting from the Holy Spirit. This was the first time I had told a patient that I loved them and after this experience I would often tell patients that I loved them and without a doubt, I would hear that same wonderful response, “Love you too.”
In 2007 I was ordained a deacon and I continued to volunteer at Middlesex Hospital in Pastoral Services, now bringing the Eucharist and prayer to Catholic patients throughout the hospital. I am a great believer in the power of the Eucharist to bring healing into a person’s life, and bringing the living presence of Jesus in the Eucharist to patients was a very special gift for me.
In March of 2020, because of the Covid-19 virus, I had to stop my volunteering at Middlesex Hospital. I hope that I can eventually return as a Eucharist Minister, as it is a wonderful way to serve the Lord.
By Deacon Dana Garry