Volunteer Spotlight: Ellen Raspitha

“Being able to come here helps me keep perspective on my life,” says Regional Hospice volunteer, Ellen Raspitha

Ellen Raspitha has a long history as a Regional Hospice volunteer. And since 2016, she has really ramped up the generous time she spends supporting our patients and their families. For the last four years, she has volunteered over 300 annual hours, which has earned her the “Silver Level” President’s Volunteer Service Award. We asked Ellen if she’d spend a little time with us, sharing her motivation for being an RH volunteer and what this role adds to her life. Here’s what she had to say:

How long have you been volunteering at Regional Hospice?

“It’s been about 22 years. I was the first volunteer to visit RH patients in March 2000 when the program was in Danbury Hospital.”

What inspired you to be part of RH?

“I was motivated to learn about Regional Hospice after the sudden passing of my mother, but it seems to me that death and grief, be it sudden or anticipatory, have actually been a very integral part of my life.  My second-grade sweetheart passed away from a brain tumor. That was my first introduction to death. A favorite adult friend passed suddenly from a heart attack when I was 10. Then, my favorite aunt and the young girl who was my flower girl when I was married, both died in car accidents. My firstborn, my little son, who was considered fine at birth, suddenly took ill at 12 hours and passed away at 39 hours old. That was very sudden, to say the least. At the Center for Comfort Care & Healing, I often think of my mother-in-law. In 1985, long before palliative care, hospice and pain management, she had a very painful death from colon cancer. When I asked if she could have some help, the reply was, ‘It’s not the time for her medication.’ My mother died from a fatal pulmonary embolism four days post-op; my father from prostate cancer and coronary disease.  My husband had Lou Gehrig’s disease. We live in New York, but RH played an integral role in providing support and advice in his final days. Unfortunately, the Center wasn’t in existence in 2009 when he died.

I really feel, looking back, that grief and death are like companions in my life, old, old friends. They ebb and flow; they may go away for a while, but they are never far, and they always come back.

I take those different experiences and bring them here, to the patients, to the families, to the staff, and to the volunteers.”

What is your role at Regional Hospice?

“I work in the Center for Comfort Care & Healing where I and other volunteers have direct patient involvement. We may sit with someone who is about to pass, deliver trays, remove trays, put the delicious cookies out at three o’clock, stock the patients’ rooms, and set them up in a certain way.

We may just sit with people and let them tell their stories. I find that people really need to talk at times. Give the patients and their families an opening, and they’ll take it from there.

I think a significant part of the role is to let people be where they are. I’m not a social worker, I’m not a counselor and I’m not a nurse. My job really is just to be a presence and be helpful when and where they need me.”

How has volunteering here shaped your life?

“It gives a sense of purpose. I look back over all the different times I’ve seen death in my life, and I guess being here helps me try to make sense of it. But it’s hard to make sense of the young girl who was my flower girl dying, or my son unexpectedly dying, or my husband getting Lou Gehrig’s disease. But my faith and being able to come here helps me keep perspective on my life.”

Have you had any particularly memorable experiences at Regional Hospice?

“We’ve had some folks who have been at the Center for quite a long time and there are some very memorable patients who come to mind. They knew they were dying, and yet I thought they handled it terrifically, like, ‘Okay, this is it, but I’m going to make the most of my life right up until the end.’ I think that’s the best you can do.

As a volunteer, you also learn so much. In a sense, it’s like living history; if I meet someone who was in World War II, I can listen to what that was like. It’s very interesting, all the stories that the patients tell. They do touch you and there are people whom I miss.”

What would you say to prospective volunteers?

“I hope they’ll come and see what it’s like here. If they could spend a morning or an afternoon with us, to get a feel for what it’s all about, they should.

Not everyone likes to be in the Center; some volunteers like to be in patient’s homes or in nursing facilities. You need to find which niche you fit.

Some people say to me, ‘That’s so depressing, how can you do that?’ I say, ‘If you’re where you belong, it’s fine.’ If you are depressed or uneasy doing anything, then you don’t belong there. Find where you do belong and spend your time there.”

What would you say to families who are considering Regional Hospice?

“I think there’s an issue with our society where we don’t talk about death and dying. It’s a very American perspective. I would say that 99.9% of the time when the patient is settled here, families will say, ‘Why didn’t we do this sooner?’

When I get to talk to people about what I do as a hospice volunteer, I tell them to come, visit and take a tour.”

What is something that people don’t know about you?

“I just returned from my fourth trip to India, to visit children I sponsor. 

Also, people don’t believe me, but if they stop by and visit me here, I’ll show them my footage from playing football at Notre Dame!”

Reporting and writing by Ekaterina Taylor-Yeremeeva