January 15, 2019
A Story from Our Hospice Houses: Jim Donlan
“This is another beautiful day God has given me.” Those are the words spoken to Jim Donlan by a terminally ill elderly woman his very first day as a volunteer with EveryStep Hospice.
More than twenty years later, Jim still recounts to every new volunteer he meets the story of that day, eager to convey to others the inspiring and meaningful memories he made as even a rookie hospice volunteer.
On that day, nearly two decades ago, Jim had just walked into Kavanagh House on 56th Street when he was ushered to Joyce’s room.
He introduced himself and asked if there was anything he could do for her. She requested to be helped outside where she wished to sit.
On a normal day, Kavanagh House’s large deck is a beautiful place to be; it overlooks the wilderness, a big green space often frequented by deer and other wildlife. But on that day, it was rather chilly, with ominous clouds blotting out the sky.
Jim and Joyce sat on the deck, wordlessly until the volunteer felt he could stay silent no more.
He settled on discussing their current, mutually shared experience. “What a miserable, dreary day.”
“No, Jim. This is another beautiful day God has given me,” Joyce replied.
That day, Jim learned the lesson of personal interpretation, and for the past twenty years has held this memory close in his own life as he has continued serving EveryStep Hospice as a volunteer.
“You don’t have to talk to people, you can just enjoy the moment, you can enjoy the presence. I think about it all the time whenever I hear anybody say ‘boy what a lousy day this is’— when it’s rainy and cold. I always think of her saying, ‘No, Jim, this is another beautiful day God has given us,” Jim recalls.
Jim first learned about EveryStep Hospice from a newspaper ad. He had just experienced the unexpected loss of his mother without the aid of hospice, and since then it has been his goal to help smooth the transition for others. Now, he wholeheartedly advocates people with big hearts to participate or join him in his mission.
“If you feel like you want to make a difference, I mean a real difference…[hospice care is] a wonderful way to go,” he said. “It’s been twenty years that I wouldn’t trade for anything.”
These little interactions are the moments in life that truly change a person. Certain aspects of a person’s situation are permanent and inevitable: no matter what a person does, we are all eventually headed towards the same final destination.
But how we experience the time we have, that is what remains important. And that preferred experience is what Jim and all the other people working at EveryStep Hospice strive for: making sure that the people we love have the option and opportunity to retain control of as many aspects of their daily lives as feasibly possible until the moment we must let them go.
EveryStep’s volunteer system aids in this effort. On request, a volunteer can come to a house and interact with the patient, performing the role of everything from a checkers opponent, to TV and couch buddy, to just being there for the patient and the family.
As Jim so succinctly puts it, “hospice volunteers, their main skill is just to listen to people.”
They are there to hear the stories, to serve as a helpful hand, or to simply be present for the duration of a family member’s grocery run or hair appointment. EveryStep volunteers help bridge the roadblocks the client’s conditions may unexpectedly create.
Jim said that that is why he decided to volunteer with EveryStep, “there are a lot of hospices in Des Moines, but this one is not-for-profit—they are not concerned about stockholders. If [EveryStep] can do something to make a patient or their family comfortable, they do the right thing, no matter what the cost is, and I think that’s great.”
If you or a loved one are interested in learning more about EveryStep, its volunteer system, or discovering other ways to support our programs, you can find more information on www.everystep.org.
This story is an edited excerpt of a piece written by Drake University student Ellen Reter.