Facing death positively

Deah Sutton volunteers to deal with death on a daily basis, a job many people would refuse even for a substantial salary.

Deah Sutton volunteers to deal with death on a daily basis, a job many people would refuse even for a substantial salary.

“People are living until they’re dying and it’s amazing what you see in people around the time of death, whether it’s the person themselves or their families, really beautiful things can happen,” she said.

A pharmacist at Medicine Chest Pharmacy, Sutton moved to Whitehorse from Halifax in 1999, fresh out of university.

As a student, she had worked at Medicine Chest the previous summer and fell in love with the city.

“I like the people and the lack of people,” she said. “I live in Riverdale, but there is so much greenspace, I can still get lost on the trails.”

With employers who encourage continuing education, Sutton was able to take a multidisciplinary course several years ago offered by the Victoria Hospice on palliative and active care.

“My dad died when I was fairly young, so I kind of learned a lot from that experience and was intrigued by it more than anything because it was incredibly sad, but, also, I had incredible memories from it, of how amazing people were during that time supporting our family.”

A number of things came together for Sutton, who admits she initially opted for a career in pharmacare as a practical choice without knowing much about it.

After completing the palliative-care course in Victoria, she met Barb Evans-Ehricht, the co-ordinator of volunteer services for Hospice Yukon, and gradually became involved with this organization

Every two years, depending on demand, Hospice Yukon offers its volunteer training program, which Sutton completed in 2003.

Only three days long, it is incredible and quite intensive, she said, teaching volunteers about active listening, communication, personal presence and palliative-care theories.

Now co-ordinator of the Hospice vigil team, Sutton and other volunteers offer bereavement support and care for the terminally ill.

“It’s funny ‘cause I often feel selfish for volunteering for Hospice, because I feel that I get a lot out of it.

“Some people will say, ‘How can you volunteer for Hospice, it must be very draining or sad?’ or all these different negative things, but it is actually incredibly positive, because it is a privileged time to spend with people,” she explained.

The vigil team is frequently called in during the last few weeks of a person’s life. It provides a reprieve for family members by simply sitting with the dying, sometimes in silence, sometimes holding their hand and sometimes having a good chat.

“Being with families and hearing them talk about memories that they have of the person, or special times that they’ve shared,” said Sutton.

“Sometimes even, too, just sitting with someone if they’re at the point where they’re not able to talk or interact with me in a direct fashion, the idea behind being there is just to be there and be present.”

People have to ask for Hospice support, she added.

“We aren’t going in there uninvited, so they are expecting to see a stranger and it’s not a shock to see us, sometimes I also know the people from my work.”

Due to conditioning, just being present and sitting quietly with a person who is nearing the end of their life can be difficult, said Sutton.

“I think we are programmed, and, especially, as health-care professionals we’re programmed to fix things and make them better, rather than just being there, but as soon as you let go of this, it’s kind of nice to just sit with someone and not have any sort of judgment or expectation of the situation.”

Sutton periodically gives presentations at the hospital for other volunteers on various issues surrounding death, including a presentation on medicalizing dying (the decision and concomitant controversy of whether to treat people medically or not to treat them at all).

Hospice Yukon volunteers generally work with the hospital, Copper Ridge Place and Macaulay Lodge along side home-care workers, nurses and palliative-care physicians, and Sutton commended this team of professionals.

“They are not just in there and out of there, giving an injection and then see you later. They are compassionate health-care professionals and I think we are very lucky in the Yukon to have that.”

During the Christmas season, Sutton is also the Hospice Yukon Lights of Life tree-sitter co-ordinator.

When she is not co-ordinating events, giving presentations, sitting in vigil and working as a pharmacist, she enjoys going on long bicycle trips, last year in New Zealand.

Chosen Hospice’s Volunteer of the Year, she will represent it at the city volunteer awards this Friday, during National Volunteer Week.

The Volunteer Bureau, which has only been operating for three years, is hosting its biggest volunteer week observance to date.

More than 18,000 individuals (18,085, to be exact) across the territory are being recognized for their volunteer services this year and will receive a chance to win a full garden set, including a gas barbecue.

Each nominee will also receive a flowerpot, alluding to this year’s theme — volunteers grow communities.

The Friday evening awards banquet will highlight some of the work done by these dedicated volunteers and, after dinner, a Manitoba improv group will perform a piece reflecting the lives of volunteer workers.

The volunteer bureau helps non-profit organizations receive more exposure and suggests how they may procure volunteers. However, it does not dole out volunteers to expectant organizations.

The Yukon government has just approved a three-year funding request by the bureau, which will allow it to partner with the 2007 Winter Games, and maintain its Yukon-wide volunteer support network.