The toughest mission
By Master Sgt. Mark Olsen, 108th Wing
/ Published March 11, 2017
JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, NJ, US-- -- In the movies, the toughest mission is the one where they ask for volunteers.
Capt. Felicia M. Bittner is one of those volunteers.
And the mission she volunteers for always ends in death.
Bittner is a hospice volunteer.
For Bittner, a Senior Intelligence Officer with the 108th Operations Support Squadron, the journey to becoming a hospice volunteer with Caring Hospice Services began when her mother was diagnosed with cancer in 2007.
“My mom was sick for seven years with cancer; my brother and I were her caregivers. She passed two years ago, in 2014, so it was around that time when I started thinking about working with people in hospice care.”
Hospice programs provide end-of-life care that focuses on alleviating a terminally ill patient's symptoms, which can be physical, emotional, or spiritual. More than one-third of Americans who are dying utilize hospice.
“Dying people need companionship just like anyone else and most oftentimes in nursing homes they’re left alone.”
There are many volunteer opportunities in the world; hospice, unfortunately is not usually the first one on most people’s list. As a result, it takes a special kind of person to be a hospice volunteer.
“I didn’t realize how comfortable I was around people and with the idea of death. I didn’t want to run away. Going through it with my mom, I would’ve hated it if my mom had been alone. So I reached out.”
Hospice volunteers provide emotional support and companionship to patients, as well as provide respite for caregivers and family members involved in the patient’s care.
However becoming a hospice volunteer is not an easy task.
“First came the phone interview, then the in-person interview followed by a class. Then they do a background investigation to check if the volunteer has a criminal history.”
That’s just the first step.
“Then you go for a basic physical, blood tests to make sure you don’t have any infectious diseases. Then you have a four-hour training class with the volunteer coordinator, where they go over different scenarios in case you are put in a position of talking with someone with different religious or family history sensitivities. You never know what a family is experiencing, especially with sickness and death, a lot of people handle it differently.”
And because people handle death differently, this can lead to friction.
“Your role as a patient companion is just that: Its’ not to upset anyone or get involved in any family gossip. Just go in and be a listener.”
During the two years Bittner has volunteered as a patient companion, she has worked with nine patients. Currently she is seeing three patients a week.
“You want to be there as a presence so they are not alone. I go into the nursing home, usually I’ll find someone either sitting in a bed or a chair, and I pull up a chair next to them and I ask them how their day is. Sometimes they talk and sometimes they don’t, I just hold their hand.”
“I’ll be there anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour per patient, per week. So I am visiting them four times a month. I don’t view it as a chore, it’s a privilege for me that this stranger who doesn’t know me, will let me sit with them.”
Some patients are non-responsive.
“The one that sticks out, he was a huge fan of Peanuts (the cartoon strip). His room had Snoopy stuff everywhere, so I said ‘I see you like Snoopy’ and he would just mumble “Snoopy’ but he was never aware enough to talk to me. So I just held his hand and I’d talk about the different Snoopy things in his room.”
And then there are the patients who aren’t even that fortunate, the ones that don’t have any family close by, or even have anything from their lives in their room.
“One patient’s room was bare. I couldn’t get her to respond in any way. So I just held her hand. I didn’t start seeing her until within a few days of her passing.
There are also patients who are veterans who would benefit from volunteers.
The amount of time Bittner volunteers is based on her military, family and school schedules. Currently, Bittner is working on her masters’ in public service leadership with a non-profit management specialization. She has been with the 108th for 19 years.
What might seem strange to people is that there is also a positive side to being a hospice volunteer.
“One patient had a big impact on me. She told me all about her childhood in New York and how she grew up outside of Central Park. She went on to be a psychiatrist. I joked with her if I should lay down on the couch when we were talking and she laughed.”
That positive side, according to Bittner is it changes your focus on life.
“I spend as much time as I can with my kids because we get one shot, I am not going to be this age again, my kids aren’t going to be this age again. I don’t get a second chance for this day and who knows what’s going to happen.”
“That’s the effect my patients and my mom have had on me.”
This is the part of the story where instead of this being about Bittner, Bittner makes a direct appeal to you, the reader, about the need for more hospice volunteers. Even one more volunteer would make a difference.
“There’s a lot of people out there in their 80s and 90s and they are the only one in their family left. If that speaks to someone and they have the desire to sit, there are a lot of people willing to tell their stories.”
And while volunteerism has a positive side, it is also a very individual experience.
“I don’t think that people should feel the way I do, because my perspective is very personal. I almost feel selfish, because I feel so good after sitting with someone. I thank them every time I go “thank you for letting me sit with you today, I really appreciate your time.’”
For Bittner, its’ all about making a difference performing that toughest mission.
“In the intel world, there’s never good news when we brief senior leadership; it’s not happy, it’s bad or dangerous. So what do you counter that with – love and kindness. I can’t change what’s happening, but I can go and sit in a nursing home and offset some of the bad in this world.”