Mission House volunteers make hospice houses unique and special

If you were to visit our hospice houses, you’d find the many volunteers who share their time and talents to make each home more comfortable, welcoming, and special for our patients and their families.

On Tuesdays, you might hear Jim Wells playing his hammered dulcimer in the living room or the courtyard at Mission House in San Mateo. He taught himself to play this unusual instrument almost 30 years ago, and now performs at weddings, celebrations of life, and renaissance fairs, as well as with a dulcimer orchestra he helped form.

After Jim’s mom had “a terrific experience” with hospice care in Washington, Jim was inspired to enroll in our direct care volunteer training. He now plays at patients’ bedsides, sharing music and stories. “Music has an incredible power,” he says. “The vibrations of an acoustic instrument are so much more potent than a recording.”

In addition to playing traditional Irish/Celtic music, standards, and show tunes, Jim takes requests. He recently learned some new tunes for a patient who was a fan of the Beatles. 

He finds that playing in the common areas of the house helps family members relax. Jim fondly remembers an afternoon when a visiting family member asked if he could join him in music. The man turned out to be an amazing jazz pianist, and the two of them created a spontaneous half-hour concert for everyone in the house.

“That’s what happens at the house – these emotional encounters that can be so positive. I feel lucky that I have a place that I can go and play. I am the lucky one.”

Volunteer Paul Horak says that, as a future physician training at Stanford University School of Medicine, he felt he had a responsibility to experience end of life through hospice patients – so he fit volunteer training into his busy school schedule. “I knew when I first went to the office that these were people I wanted to learn from,” he remembers.

By volunteering at Mission House Woodside on Sunday mornings, Paul says he’s learned from the staff and been rewarded in ways he couldn’t have imagined. “You get to know patients and their families, and to hear their life stories. I am so grateful that I get to be in people’s lives in this way.”

He’s also really enjoyed being part of the Mission Hospice team. “As someone in my mid-20s, I get to interact with volunteers of all ages. My friendships with other volunteers have enriched my life and energized me.”

Paul also felt that it was important for his fellow medical students to learn more about hospice care. “We are told to be present with the patient, but we don’t get practical training or coaching in that,” he says. With support from one of his professors, Paul launched a popular seminar series about end-of-life issues, including a field trip to the house, an experience he says was “life-changing” for the future physicians.

“Volunteering has helped me realize I have a passion and interest in end-of-life issues,” Paul says. “And I know that my time at Mission House will make me a better doctor.”

Both of our hospice houses are typically filled with beautiful flower arrangements, the handiwork of volunteer Linda Murphy.

A busy real estate agent, Linda started as a direct care volunteer, but then found that her work schedule made it hard to visit patients. She discovered the perfect solution when she tapped into her passion for flower arranging, and volunteered to be our liaison with the nonprofit Random Acts of Flowers, which prepared and delivered donated bouquets.

When that organization closed its doors, they connected Linda with the staff at the Trader Joe’s at Hillsdale. The store now donates discarded flowers to Mission Hospice every week.

Linda picks these up on Wednesday mornings and, in her garage, sorts through the material to select what’s usable and match it with the available vases. In the afternoon, she delivers to the San Mateo and Woodside houses an arrangement for each patient. “I always try to do one big bouquet for the center table or the mantle,” she says, emphasizing the importance of keeping the common areas beautiful for family members and staff.

Linda has been creating and delivering bouquets to the hospice houses for about two years. “It works out really well, both for me and for the patients,” she says, “and it makes me feel good to do it.”

Volunteer Phil Georgy is proof that volunteering can be a positive life force. A former travel agent, Phil had volunteered for many years with the Red Cross and other community service organizations. After caring for his own mother during her last nine months of life, he was inspired to go back to school to study healthcare.

But before he could finish his training, a serious illness landed him in the hospital. Phil then spent a year in a nursing facility. When he was discharged last fall, still in a wheelchair, a friend suggested that volunteering could help him heal. He now visits patients at Mission House San Mateo every week, while he continues to attend classes as well as his own medical appointments.

Phil says that having been a long-time patient helps him empathize with the patients and families. “Even though I’m in a chair and I’m a patient myself, I have a lot to offer.”

When patients see him in the chair, “it’s a cue for them to be open about their own feelings and experience,” Phil explains. He says it can be easier for patients to talk about their feelings and their fears with someone who’s not a family member.

“Even though I’m still fighting my illness, I’m determined to give back to the community. Volunteering at the house is very rewarding for me. It’s putting love into action.”