Some might think of volunteer service for hospice as a grim job. Not so, say two Tampa Bay-area women who recently received the highest volunteer honor bestowed by the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization.
Paula Haydon, 63, of Spring Hill and Irene Southwick, 72, of Dunedin were honored with the Volunteers are the Foundation of Hospice Award at the organization's sixth annual national conference on Dec. 5 in Lake Buena Vista.
"Some people might think it's a sad job, but it's a happy job. It's very fulfilling," Haydon said. "Hospice is about life, about helping in life any way you can at any given moment."
Southwick concurred: "It's a job that needs to be done, and we just do it. To be able to keep everything going along, to help the family — it's one of those things that's very rewarding."
Each woman has logged more than 6,000 hours of giving care, comfort and compassion to patients facing life's end and to their families.
"It's not just the hours; it's the contributions they make," said Galen Miller, executive vice president for the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, headquartered in Arlington, Va. "It's the importance of volunteers to hospice and truly what the volunteers contribute to the program and direct care to the patient and family."
The hospice organization represents about 4,000 locations across the country, including 46 in Florida. Not all of them file nominations for awards, Miller said, and he couldn't say last week how many had been considered for this year's honor.
But with their dual citations, Haydon and Southwick put Florida on the care map and marked a first as well, Miller noted: Never before has the national awards panel of health care professionals recognized more than one person as the year's top volunteer.
At Suncoast Hospice of Clearwater, which nominated Southwick, director of public relations and marketing Louise Cleary said of her organization, which serves Pinellas County: "Not only is it the first time (for someone to win the award), but it is two neighboring areas, so we think that's very special."
Haydon was nominated by HPH Hospice, which provides services in Hernando, Pasco and Citrus counties.
"This is wonderful for us. It says a lot about the Tampa Bay community," said Jane Freeman, HPH's community relations coordinator.
Haydon, a hospice volunteer since 1998, had retired from a radiation therapy job at age 50.
"I was playing a lot of tennis and golf and traveling and having a great time and realized something was lacking in my life," she said.
She had helped Habitat for Humanity build a house and was then at loose ends.
"Someone mentioned hospice, and all of a sudden I absolutely realized that that was what I wanted to do," she said.
Southwick's introduction to hospice was similar. She had put in two years of volunteer community callings after completing a ministry course at St. Alfred's Episcopal Church in Palm Harbor and a leadership course at Loyola University in Baltimore. That was after she had retired from teaching adult education classes in the Pinellas County school district.
"One day, one of our retired nurses (at the church) and another who volunteered (at a local hospital) suggested hospice," Southwick said. "I just realized that all the training I had would be used in hospice. That was 1998, and I've been doing it ever since."
Southwick's and Haydon's training continued in their new pursuit, both taking hospice-sponsored classes in patient care giving, respite care, bereavement counseling and special needs of life-threatened children as well as youths suffering the loss of a loved one.
The efforts for children magnetized Southwick's devotion. She signed on for Suncoast Hospice's perinatal program, which provides comfort and support to those who lose a child at birth, who are expecting a stillborn baby or who just need sensitive advocacy with a newborn.
Southwick turned to her sewing machine for help. She stitches little gowns for premature babies and "heart wraps," or cuddle blankets, for other newborns — the parents often taking the blankets home.
"Sewing is my therapy," she said. And it can be for others, too.
"The hardest thing I've ever done for hospice: We just had a family, a grandmother was in bereavement," Southwick said. "Her daughter had killed her three children and herself, and the grandmother wanted quilts on the one-year anniversary (of their deaths). The grandmother said she was ready to let go of the children's clothing."
The clothing was delivered to Southwick, who snipped the clothes into patches and sewed them into three quilts, then added a pillow.
The grandmother, "when she saw these things, she began to heal," Southwick said.
Haydon conceded that hospice calls often are sad. "Sometimes there are tears involved," she said, "but you know others are there to be helped."
Both women said they get a boost from volunteering to help run children's camps.
"You can help them cope better," Southwick said. "At a very trying time in life, you are changing their future."
Haydon said that for her, "the most rewarding is when I can sit down with patients and talk about their lives and their memories. Everything they tell me is something I can learn from — about life, about love and, of course, about caring."
The women's volunteer work can include transporting patients to doctor's appointments, cleaning a bedridden patient's refrigerator, playing favorite or soothing music for them, providing company for a patient whose caregiver needs a break, and holding hands and giving hugs.
Each of the award winners gave credit to her spouse.
Haydon said of her husband, David: "He's always understanding. I couldn't do it without his support." If she's late for dinner due to her volunteer work, she said, he will cook himself and keep her plate warm until she returns home.
Said Southwick of her spouse, Dale: "I have a husband who is very tolerant of all my work hours."
Southwick and Haydon both said they plan to continue their volunteer work for the foreseeable future.
"You can only have fun so many hours a day," Haydon said, "and then you need to find something that is rewarding."
Beth Gray can be contacted at email@example.com.