Volunteer Jean-Pierre Fournier from the Montreal General Hospital on the privilege of accompaniment, and how all acts of volunteerism are extraordinary
“In palliative care, there is a lot of life, and a sense of life being precious because every moment counts. This is a place where people realize the importance of life.”
By Devon Phillips. Jean-Pierre Fournier is acutely aware of how precious life is and how important it is to be fully present and loving to those at the end of life. I met with Jean-Pierre at the Montreal General Hospital (MGH), Montréal, Québec.
Q: Not everyone decides they want to volunteer in palliative care. How did you arrive here?
A: Palliative care is more than an interest for me – it is a part of my life’s journey. The way my life has unfolded has brought me to palliative care. Starting when I was a child I had many questions about life and about death – many people in my life have died and I have seen a lot of suffering.
In my career, I worked as an administrator in a long-term care residence for many years. The nuns and their staff demonstrated much compassion and empathy. Many times when I had to work late, I would see the nuns visit the sick. Their love and care was amazing and improved the quality of life for the residents. This made a big impression on me.
I had the privilege of getting to know many of the residents and they told me about their life, their pain, their joy. Some never had a chance to love someone, and others at age 80 were totally in love and the heartache they experienced was no different than that of an adolescent. It was a privilege to be close to these people.
In May 2001 my sister Louise died at age 48 from brain cancer. I had the privilege of being with her throughout her time in palliative care at Nôtre Dame. From that moment on, I wanted to offer a presence to those who are dying.
I started to volunteer everywhere I could. In 2003, I saw a poster for McGill Palliative Care and something just clicked! So I called the volunteer coordinator for palliative care and she said, “yes we need volunteers here”. She said you have to take a course and I said, “no problem!” I started volunteering at the Royal Victoria Hospital in April 2003, but in June they closed the unit so I transferred to the MGH. That’s how I came here.
Q: You said that the death of your sister marked a big change in your life. What changed as a result of Louise’s death?
A: When a person is ill, when they are dying, it is important to be actively present. At the end of life, every moment of life is important. You realize the beauty of life, of nature. Sometimes people ask, “why me, why am I suffering?” But I ask, “why me, why am I not suffering as much as others?” And all this came to me when Louise was dying. It made me more sensitive to life. We have so many missed opportunities in life. When I die I think the only regret that I might have is that I did not love those around me enough.
You know all the people that I have accompanied have contributed to constructing my heart and I hope I am a better human being because of this. I still have questions about why there is so much injustice in the world, but I am more at peace now. There are two aspects of peace: love and forgiveness, it’s simple.
I am lucky that life brought me here to the palliative care unit. It’s like “Man and his World”- there are people from different cultures, different ethnicities, and I have the chance to accompany them. It doesn’t matter if they are white, black or violet - when someone is suffering and they are at the end of life, everyone close to that person must help.
Q: Are there any challenges associated with your volunteering?
A: Often at the end of life, we do not talk. It’s the quality of the presence that matters. The challenge is to find a way to be present for the person at the end of life. At the beginning when I became a volunteer in palliative care, in my head it was just for the patients. But I have learned that the ones who suffer the most are the family members.
It’s also difficult for children when their parents are dying. Children are magical. They are like angels. Children are fragile and very strong at the same time. But I say to myself, “why are you taking away such a young parent with small children?”
The raison être of the palliative care unit is the patient, and the family and friends. I spent so much time watching the nuns take such good care of the elderly and dying that it’s inside me, it’s part of who I am.
Q: You speak of the palliative care unit as a special place. Can you tell me why?
A: In palliative care, there is a lot of life, and a sense of life being precious because every moment counts. This is a place where people realize the importance of life. Every visit with a loved one, every meal, every glass of wine, every song, every small thing is truly enjoyed.
People who have the privilege to accompany their family members at the end of life, over time you seen them change. They experience the grace of accompaniment, realize how much they love them, and they become better human beings. This is why I volunteer. Each and every act of volunteer work is extraordinary. To be a volunteer in this society means to give of yourself and of your time for the benefit of others, in a society based on competition and money. And to volunteer in palliative care is remarkable because a lot of people are afraid of hospitals, let alone being with people at the end of life.
Q: Tell me about the role of the volunteer in palliative care.
A: The volunteer is the bridge between the patient and the medical team. Volunteers need to listen rather than talk, provide complete presence to the patient or family members and ensure that the patient and the family are at the centre of the care. As a poet once said, “one sees clearly only with eyes of the heart.”
Q: What would you say to someone who wants to be a volunteer in palliative care?
A: You have to make a commitment to give your time and talent to help others. Given how our society functions today, being a volunteer is a bit like being an anarchist – anarchists do not respect rules, and volunteers are not in line with society’s rules about time and money because they give their time and talent for the benefit of others. This is extraordinary.
If you are walking on the sidewalk and you see a child fall down, you help the child- you don’t ask yourself, “if I help this child, will this make me a better person?” No. You just go and help that child.
There are many different roles available for volunteers – if you can take the training and keep the door open, you will find a place for yourself – you can play music, you can take care of the flowers, you can be with patients. Try and then you decide. There is always a need for volunteers.
Q: Looking to the future, what do you see for yourself?
A: Now that I am retired and as long as I have my health, my intention is to do more volunteering in palliative care. It really gives meaning to my life. All that I experience in palliative care, all the good, it enters into my daily life. I like what James Dean said: “Dream like you are going to live forever, and live like you are going to die today.” For me, that says it all.