No One Dies Alone Episode Transcript

No One Dies Alone Episode Transcript

HOLLY IGNATOWSKI:
Welcome to the Remembering a Life podcast. I'm your host, Holly Ignatowski. Today my guest is Tannis Dorscht. Tannis is a life celebrant, grief educator and end of life doula in Okotoks, Alberta, Canada. She's also a volunteer with the No One Dies Alone program, a service that offers companionship to patients who are expected to die within 48 to 72 hours, and do not have family or friends available to be with them during this time. Welcome Tannis, and thank you so much for joining me today.

TANNIS DORSCHT:
Hello and thanks for having me here. I'm very excited to be joining you to discuss this NODA program that we operating here in our little community and actually in this larger city just south of us. We also have a chapter there that operates. So I'm very excited to talk about it.

HOLLY IGNATOWSKI:
Great. Well, let's start with that. Tell us about the No One Dies Alone program or NODA as you referred to it. What's that all about?

TANNIS DORSCHT:
So the NODA program, or Nobody Dies Alone, is a program that offers, as you said, companionship to people who are at the end of their life that would otherwise be alone. This program was actually developed in the United States by a nurse in Oregon. When she saw the need for this, she recognized that while the nursing staff and the healthcare team is incredibly dedicated to the patients, they simply don't have the resources to sit at a patient's bedside for hours because they have multiple patients they need to care for. And she recognized this as a need and so developed the program and now it operates internationally through the United States, Canada, parts of Europe, and parts of Asia.

HOLLY IGNATOWSKI:
Wonderful. So what is exactly your role in NoDA? You are a volunteer, is that right?

TANNIS DORSCHT:
I am. So in our small community, we have 24 volunteers and we serve two hospitals and a hospice. We're looking at expanding this into home care, but right now it's just the two hospitals and the hospice and we essentially are on call. And when the call comes in from a facility for a need for a volunteer, we just have a wonderful person who coordinates us all and gets us all organized. We do three to four hour shifts and we just vigil. Our role is non-medical is to simply hold space for the person that's dying, so they're not alone.

HOLLY IGNATOWSKI:
You mentioned a couple of locations. Can you take us through the process of how this all works? So there are some hospital nurses, hospice nurses who get the call, but say I'm in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and there's a patient in need. How does that whole process work? How do you get someone to them?

TANNIS DORSCHT:
Okay, so assuming that if in Milwaukee it would work the same as us, we have a person who carries the phone and the facility will call and say, “We have a patient who's alone and is expected to pass them in the next 48 to 72 hours, are you able to send volunteers to be with this person?” Then our amazing coordinator sends out, we do it by text and it's out a text message saying, we have a need for volunteer at Oilfield Hospital starting at 5:00 PM this evening. Please let us know your availability. And then we just, if people are available, we all respond. She takes the people who have responded and then she just schedules us in for, we do short shifts, three to four hours, and the goal is to have somebody around the clock with that patient until they pass and it seems to work seamlessly.

HOLLY IGNATOWSKI:
So you're saying there's volunteers all over in many places that are ready to go and they're waiting for the call. They're all volunteers. They're ready to just be with these patients.

TANNIS DORSCHT:
And so there's 24 of us and there's no pressure. Our program, our volunteer coordinator’s amazing. We're never made to feel like we have to go, but if we can, we go. And usually with the 24 of us, we're able to fill in most of that time for the patient. And yeah, I could get a text at any time and then I just look at my days ahead and say, okay, on Saturday I can do four hours during this time, and then she just schedules us all in or they schedule us all in. So she would only contact our 24 volunteers in our group.

HOLLY IGNATOWSKI:
And in those four hours that you're spending with a patient, can you tell us a little bit about that, what's happening and how you are helping them to go through the dying process?

TANNIS DORSCHT:
So as volunteers, we are non-medical support. So our role is to simply be with the patient, hold space for them. So usually, so a typical patient, I would walk in, I always introduce myself, they're usually non-responsive. By the time we get there, they can likely hear us. They know that we're there, but they can't express it. So I always introduce myself, tell them why I am there, and then I'm just going to sit with them and keep them company so they're not alone. And I just sit with them and if they're agitated, I reassure them that they're safe and they're not alone. I choose not to talk a lot when I'm in there, but some volunteers like to talk a lot to their patients, and I don't think there's any right or wrong way. If you're entering that room with the intention of holding space and offering companionship, I don't think you can do it wrong.

And then we just sit there. If you see them getting agitated or you think they have medical needs, you can call the nursing staff for, and occasionally, sometimes family will come in, and we always offer to leave when the family comes because really, if someone that they know can be there with them, we should leave that space for them. Sometimes family wants us to stay. They're not comfortable being alone with the person, but they want us to be there. So we'll sit there with the family as well. And just our roles essentially hold space for the person so they're not alone.

HOLLY IGNATOWSKI:
So some of these people do have family members. We talked about people who are dying alone. I guess we just assumed that maybe there were no family or friends involved. It's so sad to imagine that someone would be in this hospital or hospice situation and have no one around them. Why do you think this is so important and what are the benefits of this service to someone who is dying?

TANNIS DORSCHT:
I think it's so important. I think it's just like you. I can't imagine being alone on my last days and what situation would lead me to be there. And some families, just like you said, sometimes they have family, but they can't be there either for financial reasons or we don't know. We never know what the relationship was with that family member years prior. We don't know what the dynamics are. And so the importance, I think that being there is you let that person know that they matter in that moment, in that time, regardless of anything that has happened up until their life. In that point, they matter and they're important and somebody cares enough to give their time to sit with them and hold space. And I just think that is such a, it's gift to that person. And I also believe it's a gift to the volunteers that are giving their time.

I was sitting with a lady a few months back and she seemed to be very unresponsive, so I introduced myself. As I always do, I sat and held her hand just holding space for her. And at no time in my visit did she acknowledged my presence. And then when I stood up to leave, she squeezed my hand. She opened her eyes and she said, thank you. And I just thought, oh, so she knew I was here the whole time, and I just thought, so for those three hours, what a gift. She had to know that she was not alone.

HOLLY IGNATOWSKI:
That is a gift. And are you often with people as they pass, as they transition

TANNIS DORSCHT:
The first person that I vigil with passed while I was with her. She was passed on my third shift that I'd been sitting with her. And I just think as wonderful as our nursing staff is, you don't have one nurse per patient and they can't just sit with one patient. And I remember thinking, had I not been here, she would've been alone when she passed away. And so I just think that was such, I told her when she was a bit agitated, I told her that she was safe and she wasn't alone, and I was able to do that. Whereas wonderful, as our nurses are, they just can't, right? They just don't have the ability with a strain on our healthcare system.

HOLLY IGNATOWSKI:
And what about family? Sometimes you said that family is present. Do you find yourself comforting them as well?

TANNIS DORSCHT:
So only one time I've been there, and the purpose of the program is really for people that don't have family. But in one particular case, there was one living family member, she can't sit there 20, she couldn't sit there 24 hours a day. And when she was there, she just wasn't comfortable with dying with a dying process as many people. And so she had asked the volunteer coordinator, can the volunteer stay? I want to be here, but I don't want to be alone. And the same thing. And wasn't we just, it's like our presence in the room itself provides comfort. And then sometimes if she's like, why won't they give her an IV? Or Why won't they do this? And we're not medical and we can't offer medical advice, but we could tell them the principal on why they wouldn't give someone who's dying an IV and that seemed to comfort her. Or if the patient is doing something, their breathing changes. You can say, “This is normal.” So that sort of answers those questions, but you would never offer medical advice, but just your presence offers a comfort to them.

HOLLY IGNATOWSKI:
Right. So how do you train for something like this?

TANNIS DORSCHT:
So we do a two day palliative care training course, and then we do a one day training course specific to NODA. And we're trained by other people who have been in the program and are volunteers. And then for the palliative care training, we have clergy that talk to us and physicians that talks to us and trains us. And then a nursing staff member that talks to us and trains us. We're always offered emotional support before and after and always debriefing. And so the training doesn't, they don't train you and then send you off on your own. There's always constant debriefing and communication and continuing education.

HOLLY IGNATOWSKI:
You mentioned emotional support for yourself. What is it like for you? What is it? What have you learned? How have you grown doing this service for people?

TANNIS DORSCHT:
So the biggest thing I have learned, the biggest lesson I have learned from this was with the first person that I was sitting with. I knew nothing about her but her first name. And I just thought, what a beautiful place to be in. We're in a space of no judgment. There's nothing to judge. I know nothing about this person. And at the end of the day, we're all going to be here. And it doesn't matter what we did in our lives, what kind of life we lived, we're all going to die and we're all equal. And it was such a pure space to be in, to not have any judgment. We judge people every day in our daily lives. I've tried to carry that forward in my life as I encounter people and approach life more from a curiosity standpoint rather than a judgment standpoint.

Like, oh, I wonder why they're like that, or I wonder why they would've done that. Rather than saying, well, that wasn't very nice. They must not be a nice person. And so that is the biggest lesson that I've taken away from this. When I'm with them, I always make sure I always meditate before I go into the room. So I'm bringing in the best form of myself. And when I leave, I meditate and I participate in a lot of self-care. And if I need to debrief, I will debrief. I will reach out to the people that run the program and I'll just say, I really need to talk about this. And they're always offering support.

HOLLY IGNATOWSKI:
And you actually work in the grief space. You do a number of different roles, which I'd like to talk about in just a minute, but how did you come to this profession in your life?

TANNIS DORSCHT:
So my dad passed away seven years ago from lung cancer. And when he was diagnosed, he said, “Well, I'm going to die at home and I'm not going to a hospice and I'm not going to hospital and I'm going to die here.” And my mom was a nurse and we have a large family and we have a lot of outside support. So we were able to do that. We were able to allow my dad to navigate his end of life journey and empower him to make the choices that he wanted to make. And I just thought, Oh, wouldn't it be beautiful if everybody could do this at a time in our life?” We've had so much taken away from us, all our controls taken away, we've received a palliative diagnosis. We can't control that, but we can control what the journey looks like. And for some people, it isn't possible for them to stay home, a lot of work and a big commitment, but it empowers people to make that choice.
If I can't stay at home, what can I do? Can I go to hospice? Can I go to the hospital and come out on day pass? What can I do? How can I control my end of life journey? And I just want that for everybody. And I think because my dad had such a healthy, empowered end of life journey, it helped with our grief process. And we were sad when he died. And I miss him every day, but we don't have any regrets and we don't have any guilt. And we know that we were able to do that for him. And I just want that for everybody. Everybody that I can make it happen for.

HOLLY IGNATOWSKI:
Yeah, that's a noble gesture. You had mentioned that hospices and hospitals, but you're going to be able to do this in home soon. You hope.

TANNIS DORSCHT:
They would like for it to go into homes as well, to allow people like my dad who wanted to pass at home. So back start that my mom and him met when she was his bedside nurse in the hospital 50 years prior. And he said, “I want to die with her being my bedside nurse.” And that is what he wanted. And so for people that want that, there's a lot of people that just want to be at home and they don't want to go to hospice. And hospitals and hospices are beautiful places. Had I known what hospices were like when my dad was passing away, I may have said, we should go check this out because it's pretty amazing, very non-medical. And it would've been good. It would've allowed for my mom to be his wife and not his caregiver. But at the same time, it will empower people to be able to do that. And I think during COVID, it showed us people not being able to see their loved ones really took away a lot of control. So I think a lot more people are going to want to start going down this path as passing away at home.

HOLLY IGNATOWSKI:
Did you see kind of an uptick in the need for this after COVID?

TANNIS DORSCHT:
Well, yes, probably because, well, during COVID there was no, in Canada anyway, nobody was allowed into the hospices and the hospital. So a lot of people did die alone, unfortunately. And I think that may have in a wave been a blessing in disguise because it spurred the conversation. These people died alone, and that was so tragic. And how do we make sure this doesn't happen to other people? And so maybe that's something positive that came from COVID is it just encouraged us to speak to it more.

HOLLY IGNATOWSKI:
Tannis, you wear a lot of different hats. You have a lot of different roles, and I'd like to talk about them. You are a life celebrant, a grief educator, and an end of life doula. Can you explain each one of those and what those are all about? Let's start with end of life doula. What does that mean?

TANNIS DORSCHT:
So an end of life doula is non-medical support for people who are going through the dying process, much like a birth doula is non-medical support for people who are having a baby dying is a natural life process just as giving birth is. And the need for this is, there's an uptick in this because our healthcare systems are so strained, nurses and healthcare professionals can only have so many hours in a day and many, many patients. And so by having someone who can be a support person to the person who's dying is very beneficial. I see my role as someone who empowers people to navigate their own journey, kind of like I'm holding a flashlight for them, walking alongside, empowering them to make their own choices for their own journey and empowering them to speak for themselves for what they want. I can help organize resources in the healthcare system and in the community for families. I can just provide hope space and provide support for families who just need to vent and grieve and talk about all the things that are not nice, like their negative feelings and the guilt they have and the fear they have, and just let that be a safe space for them.

HOLLY IGNATOWSKI:
And where does an end of life doula come in during this journey? I immediately think of someone who's given a terminal diagnosis. Is that something you might work with this person for weeks or months, or is it days? Where does it come in in the process?

TANNIS DORSCHT:
Some people will contact me right away when they get the terminal diagnosis. You can imagine, what do I do now? Most of us have never navigated this before. And who do I contact and is someone just going to contact me or do I just wait until I get sick or what do I do? And so for instance, I went and met with a family. His prognosis is anywhere from six months to a year, and he just didn't know what to do. He's like, they've offered me counseling. Should I go to it? I'm like, do you want to go to it? It doesn't hurt. You can go once and say, no, this isn't for me, or you could continue to go for this gentleman. I suggested he said, I want to go to hospice, but I'm scared. I don't what it's like. And I said, you can call the hospice and you can tour the hospice anytime you want.

You've received a diagnosis, just go look at the hospice. And then that takes that over your mind. And now this family, I've had little contact with him along the way, and I suspect I'll have more contact with him as he gets into the end of his days. But I've sort of set the path to allow him to navigate how he seems fit. I help them set up a legacy, some legacy activities they could do for his children and his grandchildren, and then they can just talk about this and walk the journey together instead of pretending it's not going to happen.

HOLLY IGNATOWSKI:
What would be a legacy activity?

TANNIS DORSCHT:
So they could do videos, they could do a family scrapbook, they could go on a family trip. And so for this family, they started a family scrapbook. It was around Christmas time, so they've done a scrapbook for all the Christmases leading up. And then they've left blank pages to continue on after he passes this family scrapbook of all the Christmases together. Rather than trying to spend Christmas together and pretend this isn't happening, it's allowing them to talk about it and to walk together on this journey.

HOLLY IGNATOWSKI:
And as an end of life doula, do you often find yourself maybe spending final hours with the patient as you would in the No One Dies Alone program? Do they kind of overlap?

TANNIS DORSCHT:
They would overlap a little bit. I'm very careful in my role as a professional and my role as a volunteer not to cross those, but I see my role as an end of life doula to teach the family and to enable the family to vigil with their person. It is great as a volunteer that you can do it for someone that doesn't have anybody, but if you can empower the family and normalize it and make it less scary for them to sit with their person, I think that's the ultimate goal. And you're just there to provide support.

HOLLY IGNATOWSKI:
And how does someone find out about or find an end of life doula?

TANNIS DORSCHT:
They usually find me online if you can look me up. And they find me. There's an end of life doula association that has a list in Canada that has a list of all the end of life doulas for your area. And then word of mouth is probably the biggest one. If you're looking for somebody to fill that important role in your journey, you probably, a lot of people want someone that is known in the community or known to someone else that they love and trusted.

HOLLY IGNATOWSKI:
You're also a life celebrant. Talk about what you do in that space.

TANNIS DORSCHT:
In that space. And I love, so I have a genuine curiosity about people and I always have. And then when my dad passed away, this is also another thing about my dad's passing that led me down this path. Our celebrant was good and he was professional and he was kind, but at the time, he wasn't what my family needed or what I needed. Maybe I shouldn't speak for my family. And I just thought I would love to do that job and hear people's stories and tell people's stories. And I truly believe that most of us, most us are good people and we have good in our lives, even if we've had some rough patches and we just have a story that's worth telling. And so I get so much joy out of hearing people's stories and retelling their stories and honoring and celebrating who they were in life and true to who they were in life. And it's just super passionate about me and I carry with me. I try very hard to be non-judgmental. So if someone, I've done services for people but are truly not very nice people in life, but I'm always able to find the good, and I think families get comfort from that.

HOLLY IGNATOWSKI:
Yeah. What about grief education? What is that all about?

TANNIS DORSCHT:
So grief education is just holding space and allowing people to talk openly and freely about their grief, to normalize it as a grief educator. I hope to make our society more literate. When we come to grief, we seem to have this thing like, okay, they've been gone for a year now, so things should be good. And then people are like, well, my husband died a year ago and things still aren't good. So what's wrong with me? And I just want to normalize it for people to know that we're all unique in the way we travel our journey with grief. We all grieve differently. Some days are good, some days are bad. It might be, my dad's been gone for seven years and some days I just have really terrible days where I miss him terribly. It didn't go away in a year. And I just want to normalize that for people and empower them to say, you know what? I'm having a really bad day today and I just need a day off work. Or I'm having a bad day today, and I just need to take some time to myself to remember my loved one.

And grief doesn't stop at people like I do grief education for people who've lost pets. Their pets are a big part of their life, and that's a very hard one for them because a lot of people are like, well, just a dog, get over it, move along. But that's not how they view their dog or they view their pet, and I just want to empower people. Again. I guess the whole overlying arch to this is just empowering people to honor their journeys with end of life, whatever that looks like.

HOLLY IGNATOWSKI:
So I have two last final questions for you. We ask all of our guests these questions. First of all, who are you remembering today?

TANNIS DORSCHT:
I am remembering my dad today. He always taught me to be kind to people. He taught me to not judge people. He taught me that we're all equal. And then when he was navigating his end of life journey, he did it with such grace and he was just an amazing person. He was courageous. He in some ways helped us. And just every day when I step out to do something, I was like, oh, wonder about my dad would think of this today. I wonder if he thinks I did a good job today, and everything I do in this work is because of him and the life lessons that he taught me.

HOLLY IGNATOWSKI:
How would you like to be remembered Tannis?

TANNIS DORSCHT:
I think I'd like to be remembered for my kindness and my compassion. I want to be remembered as someone who stood up for what I believed in and who empowered other people to do the same. I want my children to know that I loved them unconditionally for the people that they are, and then I hope that when they talk about me, they talk with me about pride and that I left them the same lessons that my dad left me.

HOLLY IGNATOWSKI:
Beautiful. Thank you so much Tanis for joining me today and for such a great discussion about the No One Dies Alone program and your work as a volunteer companion for people during their last days and all the other roles that you play in helping people get through their grief and empowering them to do so.

TANNIS DORSCHT:
Yeah, and thank you so much for affording me the ability to talk about this program and to talk about end of life and how we can make this journey better and normalize it and just make it part of everyday conversation. I'm passionate about this and I really am hoping I could change the conversation, so I really appreciate this opportunity to talk with you today.

HOLLY IGNATOWSKI:
Wonderful. It's been a great start. For more information about the grief journey and remembering loved ones in meaningful ways, visit RememberingALife.com.

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