Palliative Care: empathy and compassion

By Guy Djandji

The goal of the Palliative Care Unit at the Jewish General Hospital is to reduce the negative aspects of illness by meeting the physical, psychological, social and spiritual needs of patients and their families. A team of approximately 40 Hope & Cope volunteers is actively involved in this unit, providing comfort and serenity to patients at the end of life.

Social Worker Rifka Hanfling has been the team’s coordinator since 2014. In addition to overseeing volunteer training and assigning shifts, Rifka provides the moral and practical support that is so essential to working in palliative care. While not everyone can confront death on a regular basis, “It can be an incredibly gratifying experience to accompany patients during their final days with respect and compassion,” Rifka explains.  “Our role is to help make this time serene and peaceful.”

What are the qualities that enable a volunteer to connect with patients at the end of life? According to Rifka, compassion and empathy are key, as is being able to manage one’s emotions. Volunteers must complete a six-week training program in addition to on-site training.  “Typically, our volunteers are totally invested in their relationships with individual patients, which  can last 3-4 weeks. It’s very intense, which makes the death of a patient an emotionally draining experience,” she explains. Rifka advises her volunteers to recognize and deal with their sadness and grief. “You have to know how to cry. I tell them that the day they can’t cry is the day they have to stop volunteering.”

Fortunately, the vast majority of volunteers on the unit derive a great deal of joy from their interaction with patients at the end of life. For the uninitiated, this seems surprising, yet, Rifka insists that it’s a privilege to help patients revisit the most important moments of their lives. She adds that in the course of their work with patients, volunteers absorb important lessons about life.

At 23, Aliza Dworkind has several years of volunteer experience under her belt, including two years with Hope & Cope. Her great-grandfather, Bernard Richler, was an inspiration in this regard. Since she was a teenager, Aliza dreamed of becoming a doctor. It was her uncle, Dr. Michael Dworkind, who persuaded her to give palliative care a try.

What could have motivated Aliza to be involved in such intense work at such a young age? She admits to initial doubts about being around death. “It’s a taboo subject that people are afraid to talk about. And after my first shift, I wanted to quit. But today, I want to become a doctor and specialize in palliative care. This is where I find tremendous satisfaction.”

Aliza acknowledges that accompanying patients at the end of life is challenging, as it demands a willingness to be totally invested in the present moment. “You have to have the ability to quickly develop a rapport based on trust, to listen with compassion and sensitivity, to be open to the other,” she notes.

How does she find the inner strength for such demanding volunteer work? “After each loss, I need to recharge my batteries, digest and reflect on the experience. The support of the other volunteers, and of Rifka, in particular, helps me regain my energy and enthusiasm,” states Aliza.

Clearly, palliative care volunteers are a special breed. Under the watchful eye of Rifka Hanfling, the team reflects the mission of Hope & Cope: to help people with cancer live as best they can, even in the final days of their journey.

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