For nearly 17 years, retired nurse Mary C. Fello has administered comfort and kindness to dying patients as a volunteer in the Forbes Hospice unit of West Penn Hospital.
But it wasn't always that way. She began her nursing career in the nursery and delivery unit of the former St. Francis Hospital.
"I was a St. Francis graduate nurse and worked there for about 35 years," recalled Mrs. Fello, 88. While her children were young, she took the night shift, and later she switched to short stay surgery. "I loved that," she noted, adding, "but I knew I wanted to volunteer here when I retired from that job."
She has been volunteering more than 30 hours a month ever since. For that contribution, she is a finalist for Most Outstanding Volunteer Award from among 48 winners of the Jefferson Awards for Public Service of 2011.
The outstanding volunteer will be announced Thursday at a 7 p.m. ceremony in the Music Hall of the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History. The winner will represent Western Pennsylvania at the national Jefferson Awards ceremony in Washington, D.C., this summer.
The Snavely Foundation will donate $1,000 to Forbes Hospice on Mrs. Fello's behalf.
The program is administered locally by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette with sponsorship by Highmark, BNY Mellon, The Pittsburgh Foundation and The Heinz Endowments.
"It makes you feel good to help," she acknowledged recently.
A woman of few words, Mrs. Fello of Point Breeze is more comfortable doing than talking about doing. When asked if it takes a special kind of person to work with the dying, she replied, laughing, "I'd like to think it takes a special person."
Her daughter, Maryanne Fello, the medical director of Forbes Hospice, agreed. "The nurses who do this are kind of a special breed. They come in and are not afraid and like to help."
She said her mother "is a purpose-driven person. She is always involved and takes up causes and advocates for her grandchildren. She goes after things that really make her get up in the morning."
The hospice serves an average of 125 patients a day. "The people who come to the hospice are very, very sick, and one of our goals is to keep people free of pain," Mrs. Fello said.
All the volunteers, whether they are nurses or not, go through special training with Shelby Anderson, hospice volunteer coordinator who nominated Mrs. Fello for a Jefferson Award.
"It kind of comes naturally, but we have special instructions on spiritual care and bathing patients and things like that," Mrs. Fello explained.
Because of her extensive experience and her natural aptitude for making people feel better, she also helps train new hospice volunteers, giving them the confidence to care for the terminally ill.
If the patient asks about dying, the volunteers are taught how to discuss it. "A volunteer will sit with the patient and hold her hand and talk or pray with her or read, whatever is appropriate," she said. The volunteers also help family members feel comfortable around the patient by having them do simple things for their loved one, including holding a hand or rubbing a back or combing hair.
"I get a real personal satisfaction from the work at the hospice. You don't really realize what has happened until you come home and think about the day," she said. "If you have helped anybody, it gives you a certain satisfaction."
As for the families, the volunteers are glad to have them there at the time of death. "Sometimes they choose not to be, and other times it just happens when they are not there," she said. Knowing that a volunteer was there and can tell them how peaceful it was makes a difference for the families.
The average stay is about a week or two, but some people are there longer. The age of the patients is anywhere from middle age up to the advanced years.
"In my experience, we have had maybe one or two children, and that is very hard," Mrs. Fello said.
Her daughter followed in her mother's footsteps and was a nurse before she became director of the hospice. "What I have marveled at when I have been at the bedside of someone who dies is the little difference of a person being alive and after that last breath. For me, I see the line between life and death very blurred at that last moment," she said.
"As a nurse we check the heartbeat and the breathing, and then we say to the family, 'Your dad is gone,' or 'Your dad has died.' They try not to use euphemisms, particularly when there are children around. "You want to be sure they don't misunderstand. So you don't want to say, 'Grandpa went to sleep, because then they might be afraid to go to sleep," Maryanne Fello said. "But the moment from life to death is as hard for me to explain as it is for my mother."
When asked how her experience has influenced her own spirituality or belief in life after death, Mrs. Fello said, "Every little episode is helpful, so I would say it does help me in a spiritual way."
For more information about volunteering, visit forbeshospice.org or call 1-800-381-8080. Volunteers do not have to be nurses.
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Patricia Sheridan: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2613.