Learning about life through death

by Jill Ragar Esfeld
jill.esfeld@theleaven.org

OVERLAND PARK — It’s hard to imagine deriving joy from dealing with death. But Catholic Charities Hospice volunteers insist their work with the dying is among the most rewarding things they’ve ever done.

Ten-year volunteer Richard Ziman is a case in point. Ziman joined the Hospice team to pay back, in a way, for help he received from Catholic Charities when he was a young man.

“I went broke,” he said bluntly. “I was sleeping in bus stations. “I didn’t know what to do, so I finally went to Catholic Charities. They really helped me. They put me up for a week and gave me a meal ticket.”

Forty years later, Ziman again found himself in crisis. But this time the problem was emotional rather than financial; he was suffering from severe depression.

“My wife saw an ad in the church bulletin about Catholic Charities Hospice and she suggested I get involved,” he said. “I remembered how Catholic Charities had helped me, and I thought it was payback time.”

Despite the fact that Ziman called with the intention of giving of himself, he’s once again found himself on the receiving end of Catholic Charities.

“[Volunteering with Hospice] put me back into my original self and got me out of the depressed state I was in,” he said. “It just put me in a different frame of mind, and it really helped me.”

Ziman, a parishioner at St. Patrick Parish in Kansas City, Kan., was one of the program’s very first volunteers. He and fellow volunteer Mary Leonard, a parishioner at Curé of Ars Church in Leawood, were honored for 10 years of service last month at a barbecue celebrating the program’s 10th anniversary.

In giving, we receive


Leonard sounds a lot like Ziman when she describes the impact volunteering has had on her life.

“It helps me keep in mind how precious life is,” she said. “Certainly there is sadness that you share with the family, but I think there’s a grace that is given that helps you, too.”

“I feel like I see people at the end of their lives and they have discovered what’s really important,” she continued. “It’s always faith and family.”

Betty Marler, who manages the Hospice volunteers, isn’t surprised at their reaction.

“Every volunteer will come back and say, ‘Betty, I have gotten more out of Hospice than I have given,’” she said. “We learn a lot from the dying,” she added. “We learn that it is not a scary time. And honestly, we feel so blessed to have that opportunity to be with them as they are taking this final journey here on earth.”

Mike Jurkovich, director of health care services for Catholic Charities, called the volunteers “invaluable” and noted that both Ziman and Leonard are involved not just with Hospice, but with Catholic Charities in general, “They’ve been very generous to give back as much as they have over the last 10 years,” he said.

“They just typify the commitment that we feel from our volunteers.”

Care in the home


Catholic Community Hospice provides in-home care for the terminally ill throughout the Kansas City metropolitan area and Topeka. Assisting in that care are approximately 80 volunteers. According to Jurkovich, a Hospice volunteer can render any service that does not fall under the category of direct patient care,such as administering medication.

“They can support the patient in a variety of ways,” he explained. “They’llsit with the patient and families,read to them, watch television with them, or do some activitiesin the home.”

Ziman said he often does odd chores — getting the mail, feeding the dog, doing the dishes. He recalled a patient who was tired of the food in her nursing home and wanted some of the “colonel’s chicken” – so he went to KFC and got that for her.

“Everybody is different and everybody goes through a different process,” he said. “You have to just play it by ear a lot of times.” Marler explained that the first rule of Hospice care is to treat the patient as a person with dignity.

“You always treat them as who they are, not a dying person,” she said. “They are still that mother, that father; they’re still that accountant, whatever they were [before they grew ill].”

Faith in action


Sharing and supporting the patient’s faith is another important volunteer responsibility, one that is tailored to the needs of each patient.

“I read Scripture, I pray with them. If they’re not conscious, sometimes I’ll pray the rosary out loud or I’ll just read Scripture,” said Leonard. “I’ve brought the Eucharist to people who are near death, and I think it’s such a privilege. I always feel God’s presence.”

Like all Catholic Charities programs, Catholic Community Hospice serves patients of all denominations. Since some 50 percent of its clients are not Catholic, Hospice volunteers have learned to meet patients wherever they are in their faith life . . . and to evangelize with actions, not words.

“We don’t go in to tell them about God or our religion,” explained Marler. “We go in with our spirituality and let that come through. All we need to do is meet them where they are and show them God’s work.”

Volunteer appreciation


Volunteering for Hospice is rewarding, but it can also be challenging. Marler keeps volunteers strong and able by making sure they are well-trained, appreciated and supported.

All volunteers go through 14 hours of training before they begin working with patients. Throughout the year, Marler has monthly meetings where volunteers attend required inservice workshops or “have a good time getting together.”

Those good times can include anything from a movie night with hot dogs and popcorn to a field trip to the Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City, Mo. Marler said she tries to help the volunteers feel like a team.

“Betty is a big support,” said Leonard. “She gives us time as volunteers to get together — and her husband, Jim, is always there, doing the cooking.”

Coming full circle


This close-knit team will soon have the opportunity to support one of their own. Ziman retired from his Hospice work a year ago because he is battling cancer.

“I’ll have to call Hospice soon,” he said, “because my liver is failing me and my kidney is failing.”

But Ziman said his time with Hospice has been invaluable in helping him face that future.

“It helped me to cope with what I’ve got,” he said simply.

Leonard, likewise, feels she’s grown immeasurably from her volunteer experience.

“I’ve just met some incredible people who have lived wonderful lives and who are ready to face their God,” she said. “When my time comes, I hope that I will have the courage and peace and serenity that many of the patients have.”

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