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Circling the Dome

Easing the End

woman holding patients hand at bedside

Illustration by Sophie Casson

Tamiko Scian’s fears evaporated the moment she entered the evening-dimmed hospital room and saw the elderly man lying still on the bed, breathing quietly. “He looked at ease,” recalls Scian. “I walked in and whispered in his ear. I identified myself and told him I would be with him for a few hours.”

Scian, a human resources specialist at Johns Hopkins Medicine’s Suburban Hospital, had been nervous about signing up for the hospital’s No One Dies Alone program because she lacked clinical experience. But she volunteered anyway, moved to action by the holiday spirit of giving and because she missed her own recently departed grandparents. As the man edged toward death, Scian held his hand, read Bible passages, played classical music on an iPod and sang “This Little Light of Mine.”

Though the man did not speak, Scian felt a deep connection with him, and she says she was honored to witness and ease his final moments. “I could feel his spirit in the room,” she says.

Scian is one of 29 employees at Suburban who have volunteered with No One Dies Alone since it began in February 2013. The program is as simple and meaningful as it sounds, providing quiet support to patients who would otherwise die without a companion or witness. About one patient per month meets the criteria of being close to death, without support of family or friends, and receiving only comfort care. When an eligible patient is expected to die in 24 to 72 hours, a group email goes out, inviting volunteers to sign up for two-hour or four-hour shifts.

“You don’t come into this world by yourself,” says volunteer Patricia Gabriel, a nurse educator. “And you shouldn’t leave by yourself.”