SMITHFIELD — Pam Roy is a fixture at Johnston Health’s SECU Hospice House.
Every Sunday, she and her dog – an 8-year-old Japanese Chin named Aurora Spaghetti – visit patients at the hospice-care facility on Hospital Road.
Last week, she brought the lapdog to the room of Jewel Johnson, 84. Johnson stroked the dog while family members took photos with their cell phones. Johnson’s granddaughter pulled out her phone and showed Roy pictures of her dog.
Johnson’s daughter, Susan Davis, reminisced about the dog they owned when she was growing up. “We had a boxer that we loved,” she said.
Roy responded, “They’re beautiful animals.”
Davis said the visit was a welcome distraction. “I’m a dog lover, and she loves animals,” she said of her mother. “I think it kind of brightens up the mood.”
Roy, who is studying social work at Wake Tech Community College, said Spaghetti offers some companionship but is mostly a conversation piece. For many families – like Johnson’s – Spaghetti brings back happy memories of household pets over the years.
“It’s a moment in time when they can have a distraction from their loved ones transitioning into eternity,” Roy said.
Roy is one of 44 active volunteers at the SECU Hospice House. They rotate shifts during the week, helping with feeding, cleaning and administrative tasks. Sometimes, they just keep families company.
Volunteer coordinator Kristin Lassiter said the volunteers are crucial to keeping the county’s lone hospice house up and running.
“A hospice facility is a service to the community; it’s not necessarily a money-maker,” Lassiter said. “We operate with the staff we have to have, and we have the volunteers who come in and make everything flow.”
At the moment, Lassiter said, the most-pressing need is for someone who can help cook meals for patients’ families. Hospice House will often have 15-20 family members staying with their loved ones, she said.
The only food staff can offer is hospital food; oftentimes, it’s not enough, and family members buy meals out of their own pockets, Lassiter said.
“Anytime we do have a meal, it’s such a blessing to the families here,” Lassiter said. “We have families that camp out here, basically.”
But the Hospice House is looking for volunteers who can help in any capacity – even if it’s just providing a diversion for family members. Lassiter said Roy’s service is as important to families as it is to patients. It takes the focus off the disease and the pain, both physical and emotional.
“The distraction factor is huge,” Lassiter said. “As you’re dying, your world gets smaller and smaller. The same thing happens to (your) loved ones, who are grieving ahead of time.”
Roy said hospice staff members enjoy her visits as well; they often relieve some of the stress in the facility.
“The nurses will tell me, ‘I’m glad you’re here – we’ve got a lot of stress today’” Roy said.
The work of volunteers has a ripple effect. Many of families are so impressed with the service that they become volunteers after their loved ones pass away. Their help provides considerable relief to the Hospice House’s 27 paid employees, Lassiter said.
“The staff here are dealing with death all the time,” she said. “We forget what a stress that is on employees.”