Hospice volunteer lends patients a helping hand

CARLSBAD — Several years ago, “Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson” became a popular book and movie. It was about a dying professor who taught a former student sitting at his side every week that a person can achieve no higher sense of fulfillment in life than love.  
Dan Del Fiorentino is the historian at the National Association of Music Merchants, or NAMM, in Carlsbad.
He says he was fortunate, at only 24, to learn this lesson when he began providing companionship to dying men as a patient volunteer through the Hospice of the North Coast. This is his 17th year.
“When I was a kid one of my best friends was a guy who was about 50 years older than me,” he said. “He was retired and I was a teenager and I really admired his efforts in the community. The one thing he kept saying that stuck in my head was that he wished he began volunteering earlier in life.”
Del Fiorentino recognized an opportunity that fit for him when he read in a church bulletin about the need for patient volunteers at the hospice. He admits to having mixed feelings.  
“I decided to take the training but that I wouldn’t be a patient volunteer,” he said. “I thought that maybe they’d find something else for me to do.”
He was taken aback at the completion of training when asked if he was ready for his first patient.
“The volunteer coordinator said that nurses and health care workers are all women and that they didn’t have a lot of male volunteers,” he said. “They explained that male patients needed male companionship.”
Del Fiorentino’s favorite story is about an elderly man who was dying of Parkinson’s disease. Every week Del Fiorentino relieved the wife so she could have time for herself.
“One day right after she left I heard something in his room,” he said. “I walked in to make sure he was OK and saw that he was sleeping.”
After returning to his seat, Del Fiorentino heard something again and ran into the room. The man was peaceful.
“A little while later I heard him say, ‘I need a hand, I need a hand,’” he said. “I saw that he was sleeping and went to get a newspaper. As I was walking away he said ‘I really need a hand.’”
Del Fiorentino returned to the bedside and the patient took his hand.
“I just sat there and thought that this was the coolest thing because he just needed to hold my hand,” he said. “Two grown men were sitting in the room, holding hands.”
Ten years later recalling the incident still makes Del Fiorentino smile.
“When his wife returned I told her and she teared up and said he never asked for that before,” he said. “I thought what a wonderful soul to want to do that.”
Del Fiorentino wishes other men could experience the rewards of being a patient volunteer through hospice.
“By being a volunteer, you’re not going to die,” he said. “You’re going to be a stronger husband and father and a participant in a process that is part of God’s plan. Why wouldn’t you want to be part of that?”
After his first patient, Del Fiorentino’s mother began a tradition.  
“There is an Indian tribe that believes the turtle is a healer,” he said. “When I got my first patient my mother gave me a ceramic turtle with my patient’s name written on bottom. Now I have more than 45.”
Judith Miller, director of volunteer services at the hospice, says that despite his initial resistance Del Fiorentino is a natural.
“He has this way of going into any situation and getting to the core of what the person is feeling and experiencing, what their needs are and how he can be of support,” she said. “Dan always relates to the person, not the disease. It’s not that hard. It’s a very simple act of human kindness.”
The Hospice of the North Coast needs volunteers in a broad range of areas from patient care to administrative, auxiliary and retail work. For more information, visit hospicenorthcoast.org or call Judith Miller at (760) 431-4100, ext. 121.

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