Barnes-Jewish Hospital | Washington University Physicians
LAST WORD | 
essays on life, health and medicine

THE CHAIR NEXT TO THE BED

The patient room I enter is quiet. It’s late morning, and I’ve walked here from my desk at the other end of the hospital after receiving a text message that says I’m needed. I feel uneasy at first, an interloper in a space that’s unfamiliar. But the nurse I meet in the room is grateful I’ve arrived and tells me so. Then she talks with me about her patient, who is in the bed near where we stand. His name is Frederick. His eyes are closed, his body still, his breaths shallow.

She tells me Frederick was not alert when he first arrived at the hospital many days earlier, and he was treated for chronic illness. For a few days he was better, then became worse. He has no family left in the city; no friends visit him. Now he is a day or two from death. These are the facts that have brought me to his room.

I’m not a nurse or tech or doctor; I’m a new volunteer in a hospital program called No One Dies Alone. The original program was founded in Oregon by a nurse named Sandra Clarke. Called away from a dying patient’s bedside, a patient who had no visitors, Clarke missed the final moment. So she developed a program that nurses across the U.S. have adopted in their hospitals because they, too, believe each of us has the right to die in the comfort of another.

After the nurse leaves, I take the chair adjacent to Frederick’s bed and pull it closer. I see that this man has gray in his beard, lines on his face, some scars on one arm. Surely he has stories to tell—but he is beyond conversation.

In a training session for volunteers, I was told that my comfort matters, too. I can choose to read aloud or to myself, talk about whatever I’d like or stay silent.

I decide to introduce myself, and I say Frederick’s name out loud because I know I would want my name spoken at such a time. I put my hand on his arm at first, then touch his hand. I tell him a few of my stories. I choose silence some of the time. I settle in, deciding to hold Frederick’s hand for as long as I can.

I don’t know if Frederick knows I’m here with him, but I know he isn’t alone. I stay past office hours and then past dinner. Until the next volunteer arrives to take my place, this is where Frederick and I are, in this room together. And then I go home.

The next morning, I’m at my desk, at work with colleagues. Frederick dies late in the afternoon. Someone is with him, sitting in the chair next to his bed.


The No One Dies Alone program accepts volunteers who are employees of Barnes-Jewish Hospital and meet other criteria. In addition to this program, however, there are other initiatives that rely on volunteer support. To learn more about them call 314-362-5324 or Email [email protected].


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