At the start of the weekend, sometimes all the rooms are full with patients. By Monday, everyone is gone.
Despite the painful realities of what goes on inside Hospice of Kitsap County, what’s more overwhelming is the amount of love and passion offered up by volunteers. No matter how many tears fall, they are there to wipe away each one.
“They really do God’s work, I really believe that,” said Kim Sanford, whose father recently passed away in Hospice. Surrounded by volunteers, Sanford was never alone as she witnessed her father’s suffering. There was always a hand to hold, someone with a hand on her back.
One particular person who stands out to Sanford is veteran volunteer Mona Santos.
Sanford will be forever grateful that Santos was by her side for the full 10 days her father was in Hospice. She had no family to guide her through what she calls one of the “most difficult” times in her life. But she did have Santos to hold her hand and comfort her.
Although of small stature, Santos is a feisty woman who isn’t afraid to take life by the horns. She wears dark lipstick, and keeps her hair cropped short. Long gold necklaces baring gold crosses dangle against her chest, an outward sign of her faith in life. Santos was born in Spain, and she still has remnants of an accent. When she speaks, her voice is soothing and naturally matter-of-fact.
“It is tough,” she said of dying. “But you have to face it. You have to face life. I always think, ‘Mona, that could be you in that bed.’”
She stays positive despite the death that surrounds her. Even with past loss in her own life, Santos keeps her strength to share with the patients she visits three times a week. After losing her husband almost nine years ago to cancer, she’s reminded of the good that Hospice did in her own life. It’s why she comes back to help others.
“My favorite part of having a volunteer like Mona is her flexibility and ability to help out wherever needed,” said Jennifer Cleverdon, volunteer coordinator for Hospice of Kitsap County. “I love that she views the Fred Lowthian Care Center as her ‘home away from home’ and the staff and volunteers there as her extended family. Nothing is beneath her. She will care for a patient as well as dust or fold laundry. She is an attractive person, inside and out and extends a great humility.”
It is because of her dedication that the staff knows they can call on her. Sometimes a patient will request that Santos comes in specifically for them.
“I don’t want anybody to go alone,” Santos said.
After they’ve reached their hands to the sky and shed a single tear, Santos goes to the window and cracks it a bit. She wants their soul to know it doesn’t have to stay trapped in a room of pain.
She then folds their hands and places a single rose in between.
“Because they deserve it,” she said.
It was this touching moment that Sanford recalls that impacted her the most when her father passed. Santos went outside and plucked a fresh rose from the garden. When she came back inside, she tucked the rose between Sanford’s father’s hands. Santos then grabbed a hand-crocheted blanket and placed it over Edward “Doug” Sanford. She also recalled that Sanford’s father was a veteran, and placed an American flag blanket over his body as well. The two stayed by his bedside until the funeral home came.
“It just made it really special for me,” Sanford said of the gesture. “He just looked so nice and so peaceful.”
Santos knows exactly what Hospice families need because she once was in their position. Her husband of 46 years passed away in a Hospice. After her husband passed, she also had a partner, Norm, who ended up in Hospice as well and died of esophageal cancer. It was Norm who both Sanford and Santos believe brought them together. Norm had been in the same center and passed weeks prior to Sanford’s father showing up. Sanford and Santos spoke of Norm frequently, and Sanford believes her father and Norm had a lot in common, even though they had never met. Even as Santos helped Sanford fold her father’s clothes, a sweater that looked identical to Norm’s popped up.
“We both just felt like somebody brought Mona to me,” said Sanford. “There were just so many coincidences.”
Despite Santos’ experience with pain in Hospice, everyone treated her so well and like family that she decided to stay and help others. It is people like Sanford she builds connections with because of her decision to volunteer. When she first started volunteering almost eight years ago, Santos would visit patients in their homes and nursing homes.
“But I like it here better,” she said. “This is like my family; everybody is so nice to me.”
Sometimes, patients ask Santos hard questions. They’ll ask why they got cancer; they want to know why they are lying in their death bed, ridden with a horrible disease. Santos, ever poetic, responds in a way that would make even the most hardened person cry.
She asks the patients if they pick a dying flower when they go out into a garden. She tells them that they wouldn’t do that; they would pick the most beautiful flower they could find. Santos reminds the patients that in God’s eyes, they are the most beautiful flower He could possibly pick.
“You belong to the garden of God,” she tells them.
Along with a sensitive spirit, Santos also brings entertainment to the Fred Lowthian Care Center for patients.
During visits, she brings her yellow canary, Julio, whom she affectionately calls “my buddy.” The patients often cannot leave their rooms, and Santos knows they get bored —looking at the same things every day.
“It’s really hard for them to be in the one room with the same bed, same view,” she said. “When I bring Julio, it’s something new.”
Sometimes patients don’t want to hear the radio or watch the television. That’s where “Julio the Therapist” comes in.
“They look at Julio. It’s something that’s alive and moving,” she said. “It’s something to relax…I think he’s good for Hospice.”
Julio price tag was $50, which was a bargain in Santos’ book. He loves to sing, she said, and she’s found he also loves broccoli. He happily sings to anyone who will listen. She believes that Julio misses Norm as much as she does. Santos wears his silver bracelet, which bears both her name and his, a reminder of the special person she misses.
At the end, Santos said living a good life and being a good person is what counts. She’s seen bitter family members ignore their loved ones, even until the end, which is hard for her.
“When you die, you have to die in peace,” she said. “That’s why you’ve got to be good in life. That’s what people will remember about you.”
In her heart, she knows she can go in peace because she has no remorse, she said. The fancy car and big house don’t matter when it comes to saying goodbye to this life, she said. Those things are easily replaceable, but if Hospice has taught her one thing, it is that people are not.
“Everybody is special to me,” she said. “You treat everybody the same.”
Know a volunteer?
With this article, the Central Kitsap Reporter and the Bremerton Patriot are premiering a new feature to honor those in our communities who are doing good things for others. Periodically, we plan to publish features on local people — neighbors, teachers, students, business owners — anyone who is doing good deeds. Do you know someone who makes a difference in our community? Email “Good Deeds” at firstname.lastname@example.org.