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No One Dies Alone: Austin Program Ensures Patients Don’t Face Death By Themselves

Tamir Kalifa/Texas Tribune
Dr. Leigh Fredholm, medical director of Seton Palliative Care, and Liz Powell, Seton’s Network Palliative Care Chaplain, visit a patient at the University Medical Center at Brackenridge in Austin.";

When a loved one is near death, friends and family often rush to their side – saying their goodbyes and remembering a loved one before they pass.

Yet sometimes that’s not possible. Family members may be unable to travel, or some may have completely severed ties with their loved ones.

But a program at Seton and Brackenridge medical centers ensures that patients don't face death alone – even if they were alone in life.

Credit Daniel Reese/KUT
University Medical Center Brackenridge in downtown Austin.

Brenna Allsuch is a nurse at Brackenridge Medical Center. Her patients are not going to get better, but she ensures their passing is as comfortable as possible. In the hallway, outside the room of one of her dying patients, she meets with Chaplain Liz Powell, who just finished a three-hour vigil by the patient's side.

They don't know whether the patient's loved ones are on their way – if he has anyone coming to be with him in his final moments. Powell and her network of volunteers from all over Austin consider a person's passing as sacred as their birth. They’re committed to keeping someone company so that, no matter the circumstances, they don't die alone.

"It's hard for me to know what comforts him," Powell says. "It's hard for me to know – when I was sitting with him, when you're talking to him. 'Does he like it? Does he not like it? Does he want music on?'"

From outside the room, what sounds like New Age music is playing. Volunteers like Powell must guess as to what would bring peace into a person's last few minutes of life. One volunteer can't talk. She holds the man's hand and uses her music to communicate with him. Allsuch and clinical assistant Maly Reyes walk in with pillows to put under the dying man's arms and legs.

Every three hours, a new volunteer quietly takes over, keeping watch over the man whose cancer is ending his life. Sixty-six-year-old Thomas Alfred Elholm is one of those volunteers. In his youth, he was a seminary student. He wanted to be a priest. Instead Elholm  pursued a career in the medical field and now volunteers for Seton's No One Dies Alone program because, he says, it feeds his spirit.

"I sometimes bring communion to the young mothers and fathers with their brand new baby," Elholm says. "And everyone talks about the miracle of birth. I think there's also a miracle of death. When you are with someone, the closer they get to death, the closer you get to God. That's always struck me as, ‘I get to do that.’"

Credit Joy Diaz/KUT
Chaplain Liz Powell says the No One Dies Alone program has taught her to "embrace imperfect life."

Chaplain Powell sits by a bench that overlooks Lady Bird Lake. There are joggers going past her, birds chirping and people fishing. She just sits still. Every day she sees the face of death. So she comes here to pray.

"Sometimes just sitting and noticing is a way of emptying, right? Emptying myself of worries, or of the to-do list – there's a lot of serenity in noticing what is and allowing it to be and allowing it to feed you too,” she says.  

She hums and sings. That's how she stays centered, happy and strong, she says.

Powell started the No One Dies Alone program five years ago. She says it’s changed her life.

The wife and mother now carries a pager and is always on call, even while she hauls her kids from after-school programs to soccer practice. Over the last five years, she says her attitude has changed.

"And when I'm sitting in the car, in traffic, with my children, wishing that we could make it move faster – part of what I know is that every single patient I worked with today wants more of this: imperfect moments with the people that matter most to them,” Powell says. “Embrace imperfect life."

For those who don't have the luxury of spending more imperfect moments with the people that matter most to them, Powell continues to recruit volunteers who can – for a moment – fill that void.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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