Making Life’s Final Journey with Compassion, Dignity and Respect – One Volunteer’s Story

I walk through the doors of the Palliative Care unit at the Dr. L. A. Miller Centre. There is a sense of being in a very special place. Calmness and warmth envelope me. I do not know who I will meet tonight, or where they are on their life journey, but I do know I can accompany them, and do small things that can truly make a difference.

I can listen.
I can be there.
I am a Palliative Care volunteer.

I am part of an interdisciplinary team that works together to ensure quality of life at the last stage of life. Everyone here shares the common goals of compassion, control, choice, communication, support, dignity and respect.

Volunteer Resources, Eastern Health

Care is individualized and holistic and encompasses the physical, spiritual, emotional and practical.

The unit of care is the patient and family, so Palliative Care by its nature, will extend into grief and bereavement. Most of our patients spend days or weeks on the unit. A few patients spend months. Others come in for pain and symptom management, and then return home.

Being ‘in the moment’ is especially important here. One never knows what makes a difference for the person or family. Helping new patients and family members adjust to the unit by explaining what we have and what we do, reduces the anxiety of this new place and what coming here means – just as giving an explanation of the dying process to a family member who is unfamiliar and frightened, helps reduce anxiety and fear.

There are no cures, but there can be healing in a variety of ways. Coming to terms with the end of your life is difficult. Palliative Care, through its interdisciplinary team, ensures people receive whatever they need to address any issues or concerns they have. Of course there is sadness at times, but there can also be joy.

While hope for a cure may have evaporated, a different kind of hope remains for many. There can be laughter as well as tears.

One of the responsibilities of the volunteers is the meals – they are our passport into the room. We are entering individuals’ lives at a time when they may be vulnerable and fragile. Having a task allows us to build the relationship process and helps us determine how we can best be of assistance. Making sure that everything is accessible – the call bell, remote, telephone, and treasured items, allows a level of independence, when much independence has been lost.

In some cases, taking photos of food choices for someone who cannot speak, is hearing impaired or does not understand English allows choice and decision making.

And there are many other ways we can help. They are as varied as the individuals and families we are privileged to meet. Sometimes it’s as simple as sitting with someone, in silence. Sometimes it’s making a cup of tea ‘just right,’ when food is no longer manageable. Other times, it’s just listening. Accompanying someone to an entertainment event and helping that person realize that they can still dance, but in a different way, brings joy. Just chatting about everyday things, like what’s in the news, allows people to experience a normal day.

(Back l-r): Palliative care volunteers Jenna Vaters and Donna Kavanagh, along with nurse (front r) Agnes Fowler and dog Angel share time with palliative care patient Rita Fitzgerald

Therapy dogs also bring a special light and love to the unit. One of my favourite tasks is to accompany owners and their dogs. It’s a delight not only for the patients and families, but for the owners, the dogs and us.

I have many memories of the patients I have met. I remember a young man and the party he had with his friends in his room. I recall the couple who celebrated their anniversary in the family room we set up for them. I remember a retired teacher and the painting she bought herself, to be given to us after her death. I recall the laughter when I helped someone with a Hallowe’en costume to surprise a family member and staff at shift change. I will not forget the young woman and her sister sitting on her bed and painting each other’s toenails. These individuals and many more have taught me about living each day fully, about strength and endurance and doing the best you can.

Volunteer with Eastern HealthVolunteering on Palliative Care gives as much or more to the volunteers as the volunteers do to the patients and families. This has been reinforced to me many times over the years.

And it’s so important carry on this service to the next generation. Recently, a 21 year old lady, Jenna Nicol Vaters, has been mentoring with me. She says she loves to come to the unit and that indeed it is the highlight of her week.

I have been enriched by my experiences, and have received far more than I have given. It has been a privilege to be part of such a valuable and necessary service.

If you’re interested in becoming a volunteer with Eastern Health, please visit our website at

This story was written by Donna Kavanagh, a palliative care volunteer at Eastern Health. Donna has been a volunteer for 38 years!

One response to “Making Life’s Final Journey with Compassion, Dignity and Respect – One Volunteer’s Story

  1. Having known Donna as a volunteer with Eastern Health for many years I was so comforted to see her at Palliative Care when my dad was admitted in 2015. The insight she provided to what we were experiencing as well as the kindness and gentleness she showed my dad will always be remembered. Thank you Donna, staff and volunteers at PCU for making such a sad and stressful time a little more bearable. You are all amazing at what you do.

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