NEW PORT RICHEY — Their phone rang shortly before 9 p.m. Thursday.
A patient was dying, and Art Nolden and Linda Knight didn't hesitate. They had received special training for such moments.
They called a taxi, loaded up the dogs and headed to HPH Hospice's Marliere Care Center.
As "11th-hour volunteers,'' they sat through the night with the patient.
"We talked about the sun, the rain, the dogs,'' Nolden offered the next day, chipper despite the duty that kept them at the center until 4:15 a.m. "Sometimes the silence was very important.''
Giving comfort at life's end gives special meaning to this New Port Richey couple who have ignored their own physical challenges to become beloved volunteers at the hospice where everyone knows them by their first names.
Linda is hearing impaired and blind and relies on Shirley, a 5-year-old golden Labrador mix. Art is able to perceive light but objects once clear are now only blurs. JJ, a 4-year-old golden retriever, is his working companion. The four of them show up at the Marliere Care Center four hours every Wednesday, rarely missing a day. Linda has racked up 218 volunteer hours, Art 227.
"It astonishes me and touches my heart. They have so many of their own challenges to contend with but they're as reliable as the sunshine," says Sheena Thompson, HPH Hospice volunteer coordinator, who first met them while making a presentation to the local Lion's Club. Art and Linda are members.
Following the presentation, they approached Thompson and asked what they could do as volunteers. Thompson appreciated their sincerity and during two days of training witnessed their strengths. Linda is keenly aware of patient needs. She knows when to listen and when to talk and she knows when to stay with a patient and when to leave.
Art's humor adds a light touch and he makes sure patients are aware of Linda's disability, gently encouraging them to speak a bit louder and slower. JJ and Shirley lead them through hallways and into patients' rooms. There the golden canines with mellow eyes sprawl, still and silent.
"Patients are interested in the dogs. They ask us about them, and talking to patients about our situations takes them, for a time, out of their situation. It's rewarding and I find the patients inspiring," Linda said.
Their own challenges make them especially sensitive to the needs of others. Linda was blind from birth, almost three months premature. She had hearing aids before she was 5. Years later, in 2002, she received her first cochlear implant, the second in 2004.
"Being able to hear opens many doors,'' she said. "It's a never ending journey. When you lose your hearing and your vision you become isolated to yourself."
Linda, 54, attended Alabama State School for the Blind. In 1967, her parents realized Florida schools were including students with all limitations in mainstream classes. The family moved to Pensacola and Linda graduated from Escambia High School in 1976. She attended Florida State University for one year, then transferred to Pensacola Junior College.
She volunteered for a time as a telephone operator at the VA Outpatient Clinic in Pensacola, compensating for her lost vision by memorizing phone numbers. She married, raised a son and a daughter and has three grandchildren, a fourth expected soon. She divorced and reclaimed her maiden name.
Art, 67, lost vision from optic nerve atrophy, a condition that began when he was a first-grader. Art married, had a son and daughter and served as District Court Clerk in Long Island for many years, promotions coming frequently. His vision worsened and forced him to retire.
Divorced and tired of the New York cold, Art headed south in 1988, joining his parents who lived in Port Richey. He learned about Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired and served on its board of directors from 1994-1996. His classification as "legally bind" qualified him for a guide dog.
In June 2000 he attended a guide dog class in Palmetto. He met Linda, who was attending the class from Columbus, Ga.
"With 16 people and 16 dogs, it was often hard for Linda to hear the instructor," said Art, so he stepped to her side, repeating instructions.
It was the start of a team effort that blossomed into a loving relationship. They've been together for 11 years, sharing life, household chores, and volunteering in the local community, particularly to HPH Hospice and the Lion's Club. Art quickly gives Linda most of the credit.
"She does all the cooking and she is great with intuition. She knows what to say and when to say it," he said.
Linda uses her Deaf/Blind Communicator, a small complex device with Braille and standard keyboards. If a patient would like to hear a Bible verse, for example, Linda can type the specifics on the Braille keyboard and through oral communication she can hear the passage and say it aloud to the patient.
"We love listening to and talking with patients and I think we have reached a milestone — to be in public, to give to the community and to take part in volunteer work here (HPH Hospice) or with the Lions," she said.
Art agreed and quickly added they are only two of scores who volunteer at HPH Hospice in a variety of roles. Then they rose together, grasped harnesses and headed down the hallway to visit patients.