Who wants to stare death in the face?

Volunteers of the No One Dies Alone (Noda) programme at the Assisi Hospice became fast friends with Mr Tay Cheng Tian. But as they got to know him better through the days, they were also confronted with the reality that his days were numbered.
Volunteer Paul Koh looking on as Mr Tay paid his respects to the gods before leaving his sister's flat, during a home visit in October. Volunteer Jaki Fisher, 39, who runs the No One Dies Alone (Noda) project, keeping an eye on Mr Tay during a late-n
Volunteer Jaki Fisher, 39, who runs the No One Dies Alone (Noda) project, keeping an eye on Mr Tay during a late-night vigil on Nov 2. She often tells volunteers that it is okay if they fall asleep during their vigil slots, because at least they are there to comfort patients with their presence.ST PHOTOS: NEO XIAOBIN
Volunteer Paul Koh looking on as Mr Tay paid his respects to the gods before leaving his sister's flat, during a home visit in October. Volunteer Jaki Fisher, 39, who runs the No One Dies Alone (Noda) project, keeping an eye on Mr Tay during a late-n
Volunteer Paul Koh looking on as Mr Tay paid his respects to the gods before leaving his sister's flat, during a home visit in October.ST PHOTOS: NEO XIAOBIN

Volunteers driven by wish to comfort others, as some have faced stressful times when loved ones died

Paul Koh, 63, has done vigils for more than 30 dying patients in the last three years. With his quiet and gentle demeanour, many find it easy to open up to him.

Having seen so many people die, the father of two admits to feeling numbed. Yet an encounter with Mr Tay touched him deeply.

Mr Koh helped Mr Tay put on diapers, change into a new set of clothes and pack fresh clothes to take to the hospice during a visit to Mr Tay's home in October.

"When I asked him which underwear to take, what colour, how many, and then I combed his hair, he looked at me and there was sadness for both of us," he said.

"It struck me that this was the last time he would be home," said Mr Koh, who shuttles daily between his volunteer work at Assisi Hospice and volunteer duties at hospitals.

Why would a retired bank dealer want to spend his golden years checking on the diapers of patients, wiping their faces or holding the hands of the dying?

This is all because big ideals such as quality of life and dignity in death start with small actions.

"These are very small things but they help keep the patients comfortable and happy. One gap in the volunteerism scene nowadays is providing urgent companionship to those who are alone and dying," said Mr Koh.

He recalled Madam Tan, a woman in her 70s who spoke dialect. She was very angry when she first came into the hospice and kept throwing things in her room. She did not want to die and fought hard against it.

 
 
 

Mr Koh found out her likes and dislikes, as well as her concerns and worries. Slowly, she warmed up to him and spent her last days with him crooning her favourite song: Teresa Teng's Tian Mi Mi. She had family but only the volunteers sent her off at the crematorium.

He said: "Seeing death so closely made me realise that life is fragile and time is short. I want to do what I can to help others now, because there may be no tomorrow to do it."

It is not just older volunteers who feel the urgency of mortality.

Dr Toh Qi, 30, also a No One Dies Alone (Noda) volunteer, came by to say goodbye to Mr Tay the night before she was due to go for a vacation. "As a doctor elsewhere, I treat people. But as a volunteer here, I hope to bring comfort by my presence," she said.

Other Noda volunteers, such as Ms Shirley Yap, 64, and Madam Jeanette Wee, 63, had gone through a stressful time when their loved ones died.

Ms Yap's mother was dying of a brain tumour and she was so afraid to leave her mother's bedside that she went without sleep for a few days in 2015.

One night, her sister persuaded her to take a nap. Ms Yap slept for only slightly over an hour. When she awoke in the wee hours, she saw her sister and domestic helper fast asleep by her mother's bedside.

Fear shot through her when she found her mother's body icy cold. She quickly woke everyone up and the family had five to 10 minutes to talk to their mother before she died.

"If there was somebody else helping us to keep watch and ensure that we were there in her final moments, we would have been less anxious," said Ms Yap, a former therapy assistant.

Madam Wee also had a traumatic experience when her mother died four years ago.

The former kindergarten teacher decided to stop treatment for her mother's pneumonia and allow her to receive end-of-life care. A day after the treatment was ceased, her mum died. Madam Wee struggled with the guilt of letting her go.

"It would have helped if there was an experienced person guiding me and telling me it's okay to let my mother go," she said.

Madam Wee, Ms Yap, Mr Koh, Dr Toh and 40 other volunteers spent a weekend in October participating in a training workshop.

Assisi Hospice flew in Mr Henry Fersko-Weiss - who started the first end-of-life doula programme in the United States in 2003 - to conduct a two-day workshop on how to be a "death doula" and help others die well. A more commonly used term is a "birth doula", who supports another woman during pregnancy as well as during and after the birth.

The course covered aspects such as how to explore meaning for the dying, design rituals and the atmosphere at the vigil, and process grief.

For instance, participants learnt that hearing is usually the last of all the senses to go, so they are encouraged to play soft music or talk to the dying person even if he is unresponsive or his eyes are closed.

Volunteers also have to go through Assisi Hospice's in-house training. They are given tips on what to expect during a vigil. People from all walks of life took part in Mr Fersko-Weiss' session, from those in their 30s to an 82-year-old woman with mild dementia.

Former banker Helen Lau, 55, shared during the workshop that she had arranged for a "near ideal" death experience for her husband when he died 12 years ago.

She had got him to record his thoughts and wishes for his three children in a videotape and birthday dolls. Besides presenting him with a photo album, the children also made drawings for him.

"In the last moments, the family sang hymns to him and when we got to the last word of a hymn, he took his last breath and that is how I know he is at peace," said Ms Lau.

"So I am here to learn more because I see it as my calling to support others in having similarly meaningful death experiences."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 10, 2017, with the headline 'Who wants to stare death in the face?'. Print Edition | Subscribe