Ann Arbor VA Hospital volunteers make sure No Veteran Dies Alone
Janet Miller | For AnnArbor.com
Now, more than four decades later, Lanzini is again dealing with death as one of about 30 volunteers at the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System’s No Veteran Dies Alone program. For more than a year, volunteers - from other veterans to employees to college students and others - have been on call to sit at the bedsides of veterans close to death.
Sometimes, volunteers fill the gaps for families who need a rest, said Derek Atkinson, Ann Arbor VA spokesman. Other times, there are no families.
“Many of our veterans are from around the state, as far away as Traverse City, and their families aren’t always available,” said Lin Fox, social worker in the palliative care unit at the hospital. “Others don’t have families, especially the Vietnam vets who may have burned their bridges when they came home.”
Last year, the program logged about 2,200 of volunteer hours, said Atkinson. “No veteran should have to face death alone. Every veteran near the end of life has someone to be with.”
For some of the dying vets, having another veteran who fought in Vietnam at their side helps, said Lanzini, who was a helicopter crew chief and jet mechanic when he served in Vietnam from 1968-69. Some need to unload the burdens they have carried with them, he said, and having a fellow vet can make that easier. “A lot of fellas talk about their combat experience, they want to unburden themselves. My idea is to be their companion. We stood by each other in the mud. Now, we’re standing my each other at their bedside,” Lanzini said.
“I don’t do this because I’m not busy,” he said. “I have 14 grandchildren and three great grandchildren. You make time for good causes. You hug them, you hold them and you reassure them that they aren’t going to take it alone.”
Others aren’t conscious but having someone at close by is still important, Fox said. “Even when someone doesn’t respond, we still talk to them. Hearing is the last sense to go. Volunteers are there just to be near.”
Others look for comfort. Carol Middel, one of the longest serving of the program’s volunteers, said she carries a Bible around with her when she volunteers, along with a copy of the Big Book from Alcoholics Anonymous. “For some, hearing the words of Bill W. (an AA founder) is comforting,” she said.
Middel said she originally thought she would be sitting with World War II and Korean War veterans. She was surprised that most of the veterans fought in Vietnam. “It’s my generation that I’m sitting with,” she said. For some of these men on their deathbeds, it is the first time they’ve talked about the unpopular war, she said. “They need to say things at the end of their lives that they haven’t said before. If someone’s not there to hear it, it doesn’t count.”
Some of the smallest moments carry the most meaning, said Connie Shi, a volunteer and an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. She was sitting with a dying vet when he received a phone. Shi answered the phone and passed the receiver to the vet. It was a long-lost friend. When the conversation ended and he handed the phone back to Shi, he said he was grateful his friend had reconnected and he was glad that Shi was there to help him, she said. “It was a really rewarding moment.”
The program is looking for volunteers. Contact voluntary services at (734) 845-3467.