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    'She's being their angel' at 11th hour

    A hospice volunteer is honored for the comfort and compassion she gives to patients.

    By ROBERT FARLEY

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 18, 2000


    The 100-year-old Russian woman was dying. And Dorothy LeCain had come to sit with her.

    As an 11th-hour specialist, a hospice volunteer who comforts people as they die, LeCain knew that the hours before death are often ripe for telling one's life story. But the Russian immigrant had not spoken in two years.

    Sitting in the nursing home, the woman's longtime caregiver spent three hours telling LeCain the woman's story.

    She told of the woman leaving Siberia and arriving at Ellis Island at age 12. How she ended up the next day working in a New York City sweatshop, standing on a box so people wouldn't know how young she was. How she became a labor organizer, a calling she continued beyond her 90th birthday, how she knew Eleanor Roosevelt personally and how she shared a podium with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

    LeCain saw the story unfold in her head like a movie. The woman had never married and had no children. Her memories of her father were of fur and snow; she remembered her mother kneading bread for Japanese prisoners.

    Finally, years of experience told LeCain the woman was at the end. LeCain leaned over and kissed her on the forehead.

    "I loved your story," she said softly.

    "Thank you," the woman said, her first words in two years.

    Then she died.

    "She was pleased that it pleased me," LeCain said. "It's one of the miracles that keeps volunteers going."

    LeCain, 73, of Palm Harbor, has been a volunteer with Hospice of the Florida Suncoast for more than 10 years. She gives compassion and comfort to terminally ill patients and their families. Last month, Gov. Jeb Bush presented her with a Points of Light Award, which recognizes exemplary volunteers throughout Florida.

    As a hospice volunteer, LeCain listens. She tells stories. She sings. She holds patients' hands. She is a friend. Sometimes she simply lets people know they are not alone.

    It is an intensely personal time, and LeCain considers it a privilege to share a person's final hours. In a busy week, she may sit with seven or eight people as they pass.

    More than once she has had a dying person look into her eyes intently and say, "You are my last best friend."

    "That's what changes you," LeCain said.

    Hospice counselor Fran Nunnally finds LeCain's work inspiring.

    "When she goes into a patient's room, she goes in with her heart," Nunnally said.

    Several times, Nunnally has walked into a room to find LeCain singing to a patient. Often, the patient is unresponsive and there's no one else there. No matter.

    "She's being their angel," Nunnally said.

    LeCain has an inner peace and calm that she is able to convey to patients and family members, said Kathy Roble, the hospice's director of volunteer services.

    "She's just so good at it," Roble said. "She is a genuinely kind and compassionate person."

    Earlier this year, LeCain was awarded the Miriam "Bunny" Flarsheim Award, an award that carried special significance because it was Flarsheim's columns on volunteering in the St. Petersburg Times that inspired her to volunteer 10 years ago.

    LeCain began with Project PUP (Pets for Uplifting People), in which she brought her German shepherd to nursing homes.

    Later, she began to volunteer, counseling terminally ill patients. She worried whether she would be a good fit, particularly before her first assignment. LeCain called upon her 25 years of experience as a classical singer, much of which she spent singing in churches and synagogues, and amazed the Jewish woman with her repertoire of Hebrew songs.

    Later, LeCain told the volunteer coordinator it wasn't until she began singing that she realized why she had been paired with the Jewish woman.

    "You know why I picked you?" the volunteer coordinator corrected her. "Same ZIP code."

    LeCain also was among the first hospice volunteers to sign up for the Buddy Program through the AIDS Coalition, a program in which volunteers meet one-on-one with people with AIDS. She met her first "buddy" seven years ago at Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital. He had requested his buddy be a young, gay male, like himself.

    Then LeCain walked in. The young man pointed his finger at her and said, "You're perfect!."

    At the time, LeCain didn't know what he meant, but she believes he hoped LeCain would be a comfort to his mother who is about the same age as LeCain.

    LeCain helped the young man write letters to out-of-state friends. They talked about movies endlessly. And whenever he called to say "I'm lonely. Can you come over?" she dropped everything.

    The young man's death was difficult, as she knew it would be from the moment she met him. But LeCain and the man's mother have remained friends. In fact, the mother drove LeCain to Tallahassee to receive her Point of Light Award. On the five-hour trip up and back, they talked about the woman's son. It felt right.

    "It's an interesting completion of the circle," LeCain said.

    Nunnally, the hospice volunteer coordinator, said LeCain has a knack for knowing how to comfort families. Many times, she has pulled families together that haven't seen each other in years.

    "She teaches families to say goodbye in a calm, loving way," Nunnally said.

    Having witnessed it countless times, LeCain knows a few things about people's final thoughts.

    "Always, they want to tell you about family," LeCain said.

    "They want to know they're loved," LeCain said. "And they want to know their life had value. In my experience, every human being knows they're going to die. They want to protect the people around them. They want to take care of their families."

    LeCain has learned the most important thing is to listen.

    People want to resolve any conflict in their lives before they go.

    "We don't die until we've got it all straightened out," she said. "And then we die."

    A large part of her role is to know when to bring in help.

    If someone is questioning their faith, she calls in a chaplain. There are nurses and doctors to help ease the pain; nursing assistants to bathe and work hands-on; and social workers help people to work through unresolved issues. People in the throes of death often want to see someone or to say something that's difficult to say.

    Working for a hospice is like bungee jumping, LeCain said. You feel like you're free-falling, but when you get near the bottom, you realize there's a team to catch and support you.

    "You're never the same when death is done correctly, supported by the community," she said. "It has completely changed my life."

    LeCain is currently on a hiatus from her volunteer work to care for her ill husband, Rowland. The two came to Florida from Buffalo, N.Y., in 1983. They have two daughters.

    In order to keep up with her physical schedule, she swims three days a week. And when things become stressful, she and other hospice workers avail themselves of in-house counseling.

    "It's the only way you don't burn out," she said.

    There is always a letdown when the patient inevitably dies, she said. Her remedy: "Quick, give me two new patients."

    But the letdown passes and LeCain thinks about what she has learned from the people she has cared for.

    "They never die," she said. "They're always with you."

    - Staff writer Robert Farley can be reached at (727) 445-4185 or farley@sptimes.com.

    How to be a volunteer

    To sign up for training classes or to inquire about volunteer opportunities at Hospice of the Florida Suncoast, call Kathy Roble, director of volunteer services, at (727) 586-4432.

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