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Volunteers From No One Dies Alone Bring Dignity to End of Life

Human beings crave intimacy at every stage of life. As children, intimacy helps us survive and thrive. As adults, intimacy is a prerequisite for happiness—more foundational than pleasure or the pursuit of possessions. Yet as some patients take their final breaths, they find themselves all alone. In 2017, an average of three to five patients died alone at University of Utah Hospital each month—some experiencing homelessness, some estranged from their families, some suffering from a sudden health issue that prevented loved ones from making it in time.

A group comprised of a chaplain, an ethicist, clinicians, social workers, and students believed that each individual deserved more at the end of life and came together to form a Utah chapter of No One Dies Alone (NODA.) The national organization provides compassionate companionship for patients alone at the end of their lives. A call for volunteers attracted 20-30 people to their first meetings. Now the program has grown to 14 board members and 80 volunteers who each sit one vigil each month to ensure that every patient at our hospital experiences a dignified death.

noda2_900w-900x599.jpegPhoto: Trent Nelson/Salt Lake Tribune

Volunteers from No One Dies Alone gather for debriefs to discuss their experiences bringing dignity and companionship to patients who would otherwise die alone at University Hospital. “It’s beautiful to see people who sit and interact with one another and find a community that they can talk about death with,” says Brian Zenger (below), an MD/PhD student in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and School of Medicine who co-directs the program with Heather Smith, an LCSW on the palliative care team.

brianzenger-uvuhealth.jpgPhoto: Steven Vargo

Sometimes volunteers hold a patient’s hand or listen to stories of a patient’s life. Sometimes they play music that the patient loved. Sometimes they sit quietly, matching their breathing patterns with an unconscious patient. NODA also advocates for having informed conversations about end-of-life issues like advanced directives and resuscitation orders. Although volunteers had to halt No One Dies Alone efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic, efforts have begun again. Since 2018, 2,034 vigil hours have been held by 84 active volunteers.

In addition, NODA volunteers hold quarterly debriefs to discuss their experiences around death. “In this culture, we don’t think about death, but those discussions are equally as powerful as sitting with patients,” Zenger says. “It’s beautiful to see people who sit and interact with one another and find a community that they can talk about it with,” Zenger says. “It’s not a morbid topic. It’s a celebration of life.”