Mar 23, 2021

Learnings from 11 years at the bedside

John Rubin was a volunteer with Zen Caregiving Project for 11 years, serving at the bedside in the palliative care ward at Laguna Honda Hospital. He ended his volunteer service in 2020. Here he shares his story, and what he learned over his many volunteer shifts.

“In 2009, I was 72 and had just retired from a long career in business. I was looking for an activity that was different from my previous work and helped others.  The Volunteer Program at Zen Hospice Project, as it was then known, seemed the perfect fit. Every Tuesday morning for the next 11 years, I would make my way to Laguna Honda Hospital to visit the residents (patients) of the Palliative Care Ward, never knowing what the morning would bring.  

My 11 years with Zen Caregiving Project (ZCP) were rich and wonderful. The many residents I got to know were people I would never have met elsewhere in my life. What a gift to share time each week with them, the hard-working ward nurses, CNAs, and staff, and my many great ZCP shift mates. And so I wanted to share a few things that I learned from the experience, for current volunteers, anyone considering joining or actually, everybody! The experiences on the ward are just a microcosm of our experiences in our wider lives filled with connection, joy, loss and love.

  • Bring your whole self to what you do

    Volunteering with ZCP is about bringing your whole self to the residents, and leading with an open heart. My best moments volunteering came when I was totally focused on a resident. For example pushing a lady’s wheelchair back to the ward after a morning Baptist church service, while together humming and singing Amazing Grace. In that moment I knew “this is why I’m here today.” It helped me see that I can bring my whole self to whatever I am doing in life, focusing on the “here and now”. 
  • Drop expectations

    Just like in life, it was best not to come to a volunteer shift with a lot of expectations of what you want to have happen, and avoid giving yourself a grade afterwards about how things actually turned out. You learn to just let the day play out, and deal with whatever comes up.
  • We have to accept change 

    I learned a lot about impermanence. No shifts are ever the same. Patients who you get to know well, like to spend time with, and grow to love are going to die. It’s a world of constant flux and change. Everything changes.
  • Listen

    Our role as a volunteer is to Be With people rather than trying to Fix things that are out of our control. Our value as volunteers comes in just being with people and listening deeply to them. The stories patients share with you are what they want and need to say. Whether they’re true or not, doesn’t matter. What matters is that they are being heard.
  • Be yourself

    You are unique, and you will do things differently from others. In volunteering, we all had our different approaches – different but no better or worse. Just be yourself and bring energy, warmth, and loving-kindness to everyone you interact with.
  • We are all in this together

    We’re all in this life together. It’s good to realize that we may be the one in the bed at some future time with someone else being our caretaker. What would we want then?

The ZCP Volunteer Program is currently continuing remotely, with residents speaking with volunteers by iPads. 

To read more please see our blog from a volunteer on her experience of connecting virtually and another on how the volunteer experience has helped during the pandemic.

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