Assisi Hospice

Silent vigilers accompany terminally ill patients as they complete their life journey

published by Lianhe Zaobao on June 26, 2023
Assisi Hospice’s NODA volunteers Anthony Soh (left) and Daphne Lim accompany patients at their final moments, so that they are not alone. Photo by Lianhe Zaobao.

Translation of article:

No longer lonely on the final journey

Silent vigilers accompany terminally ill patients as they complete their life journey

52 year-old Anthony Soh found it difficult to describe the feeling of touching a body for the first time, but as he was performing the last offices for the patient, he laid down his identity as a volunteer, and became the family that the deceased patient never had.

A calling from the heart prompted Anthony Soh (freelancer) to experience many “firsts” related to death, and he had built unique bonds with the deceased patients in his silent vigil.

Anthony Soh has been a volunteer at Assisi Hospice for 13 years, and decided to join the No One Dies Alone programme three years ago, to accompany dying patients on their final journey.

Anthony expressed that he used to fear death, and could not imagine, face, or mention death.

He first experience with death was when he saw a friend passed on at Assisi Hospice.

Watching his friend pass on, he realised that the most direct way to overcome the fear of death was to face it, and hence he decided to join the programme.

Vigil programmes in different organisations have a special significance, the volunteers will accompany patients without family members or whose family are not by their side on their final journey, so that patients will not pass on alone.

“No One Dies Alone” has accompanied 249 patients in 8 years

Assisi Hospice’s “No One Dies Alone” started in 2014, and has accompanied 249 patients till 2022.

Volunteers will be activated when the patient’s prognosis is 48 to 72 hours, to sit in vigil at the patient’s bedside. Most patients would not be able to respond much physically or talk at that stage.

To Anthony Soh, being a NODA volunteer does not require any special skill, what he needs to do is to sit beside the patient and let them feel that someone is with them.

“There are many ways to help someone, but we forget that sometimes, the simplest way to help is to be with him.”

He recalled the first time he was at the patient’s beside when the patient passed on.

There was no volunteer scheduled to be on vigil at a certain timeslot for the patient. Anthony felt a calling to be present by her side at that timing, hence he signed up for duty and proceeded to the hospice.

During the vigil, her breathing grew faster, which was a sign that she was dying. He tried to sooth the patient, played soothing music, held her hand and prayed. After 15 minutes, she passed on.

In the short 10 minutes of the journey between life and death, the unconditional presence is a form of gentleness to the patient without any family members, and also a sentimental experience for the volunteer.

“If I did not go for the vigil, there would have been no one accompanying her on her final journey.”

As it was the first time a patient passed away under his vigil, he was not aware that he would be performing the last offices.

The nurse who was present guided him on how to turn and clean the body, combing of hair etc. These were usually done by the family members, but Anthony did all that.

 Anthony said that he did not even have the chance to touch his father’ body when he passed on, yet he was doing these for a stranger.

“I do not know if she had any family members, but at that moment, I felt that I am her family, seeing her off on her final journey. I felt that I was called to be present for a reason.”

He admitted that he felt a little nervous when he was waiting for the caretaker to come and collect the body.

“I accompanied her till the final moment, prayed for her and spoke to her. Though I did not know her, but I treasure the relationship we had at this final moment before I bade her farewell.”

Volunteer: Being present is the main way of care at the end of that patient’s life

50 year-old Daphne Lim (freelancer) joined Assisi Hospice’s NODA progamme for seven years.

Her father died from live cancer 15 years ago. He was supposed to be transferred to Assisi Hospice but passed on before he did. Even so, the hospice left a good impression on her, and she told herself that she would volunteer there when she had the chance.

To her, being present is the main way of care for a patient near the end of his life.

“I feel that what’s important is not what we talk about with the patient, but it’s more of letting them know that there’s someone by their side. Even though we do not talk, as long as they hear that there’s someone in the room, they will know that they are not alone.”

She said, “We always say here ‘When the doctor cannot add days to your life, we add life to your days.’”

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