SPRING HILL — Volunteers at HPH Hospice say they are not special people; it's the patients, who are facing the end of their lives, who are special, they maintain.
Nonetheless, the volunteers say they take joy in the work they do — and what it can do for them.
"I volunteer because of what I get, not what I give," said six-year veteran Martha Micallef.
Said teammate Judy Versulli, who has been a hospice volunteer for three years: "I come here to be rejuvenated.
Both primarily assist, by choice, in patient support.
In the kitchen, Betty Galante, affectionately known as Two-Cake Betty, lost her husband, her dining mainstay, five years ago. But she didn't lose her love of cooking. So, she regularly appears to bake two cakes a week for the patients and their visiting families.
On a recent afternoon, Galante, 65, tucked three cakes in the oven — two raisin and her signature apple cake — because she'd had a special request for the latter.
The women are among 75 volunteers at HPH Hospice's residential care center at 12280 Cortez Blvd. Some work as little as one day a month; others, like the duo of Micallef and Versulli, help out four hours a week.
The need for volunteers is constant.
"We are in desperate need for volunteers in summer," said volunteer coordinator Anne Clarke. "So many of our volunteers are snowbirds."
Those who sign on can choose from a multitude of assignments: in the kitchen prepping or baking food, assembling sandwiches, filling meal trays or washing pots and pans; in housekeeping folding laundry and distributing linens to rooms; in offices serving as receptionists and greeters, or maintaining and filing records; in patient support listening, talking, feeding, holding hands, reading, helping families in their hours of need.
"I like giving back," said Versulli, 63, retired from office work. "I like patient interaction. You're zoned in on the patient."
She listens to stories about their lives, their reminiscences of good times. Sometimes they share the contents of prized photo albums.
Versulli admitted she likes to "spoil" her patients.
"Taking care of them, like taking them a box of Kleenex, a bowl of chicken soup, they're treated like royalty," she said.
The pleasure in such acts works both ways.
Micallef, a vigorous 60-something and a retired director of nursing after 40 years in the profession, noted, "I always said when I retired, I'd volunteer for hospice. I always knew what wonderful things hospice did."
Micallef's mother died in hospice care in Kentucky.
From early in her nursing career — 1967, to be exact — Micallef remembers her first patient who died alone.
"No one should die alone," she declared.
Versulli also recalls what she described as "a poignant moment."
She looked into a patient's room and saw a daughter cradling her mother's head on her shoulder, stroking her mother's arm, "just like the mother would have done to her daughter when she was little."
Versulli hugged herself as she told the story.
"See what I get out of it?" she said. "I'm a touchy, feely person."
Some families are resigned to life's end when a loved one arrives at hospice, Versulli said. If not, something spiritual often occurs, Micallef has observed. During his or her remaining time, the patient and family want to enjoy life, the caregivers said.
So, hospice isn't always a sad place, they insist.
Still, not all of the volunteers are comfortable with close patient interaction, and they are given other tasks. They may help plan and carry out events and activities, provide respite time for caregivers, visit in nursing homes, come to hospice with their therapy dogs, file patient charts, peel potatoes, stir up homemade soup, play the piano or sing.
Whatever skills or likes a person has, a slot can be found for the volunteer and a schedule worked out that fits their lifestyle, Clarke said.
Micallef said some volunteers find joy in ways they never imagined.
"Sometimes if you do something you don't like, you feel so special," she said.
Beth Gray can be contacted at [email protected]