Volunteer Lisl Zadek at Mount Sinai Hospital on the satisfaction of helping others at the end of life and what makes a good death
“I realize that when I come here there are so many people who are lonely and afraid and they welcome someone to talk to.”
By Devon Phillips. Devoted is the first word that comes to mind. But feisty would be a close second. For the last 17 years, Lisl Zadek, now 90 years young and going strong, has worked in the palliative care unit at Mount Sinai. I met with Lisl at Mount Sinai Hospital, Montréal, Québec.
Q: What made you decide to volunteer at Mount Sinai and how long have you been here?
A: Well I lost my parents of course and my husband. After you lose a loved one, the best thing anybody can do is to keep busy. I am not the type to walk around the shopping centre and sit somewhere and drink coffee for all hours.
As of February 2015, I have been here for 17 years. I wanted to do something useful after my husband passed away and I am still here. I enjoy being here. I think it is the most rewarding thing anyone can do.
Q: I am sure you are very appreciated. Does this feel a little like family after 17 years?
A: Yes! I have a great family and Mount Sinai palliative care is my second family. There is something about this hospital that makes you feel at home. It’s a small place – we only have about 107 beds so everybody knows each other and helps each other.
I know just about everybody who comes here on Tuesday, Wednesday or Friday. Those are my regular days. I have time because I live alone and I enjoy giving a hand whenever I can.
Q: Can you tell me about the kinds of things you do as a volunteer?
A: When I start out I go from room to room to inquire how they are, see how their night was. And I ask if they would like to have a drink and if they want a little company, I will stay with them. I stay mostly with the patients who have nobody else. I may get to know the family, and so I not only speak to the patients, I speak to the families as well.
Then of course I am there to feed the patients, bring the juices, coffee, tea, whatever they want all day, and for their families as well.
And in the afternoon I pass a cart around and I usually prepare it with cookies, ice cream, coffee, tea, juice and I go from room to room. Those little afternoon snacks mean a lot to the patients and their visitors.
Q: Are there quite a few patients in palliative care who are alone or who are alone a lot of the time?
A: It’s amazing how many patients are alone and I am very happy if I can help.
People do appreciate me for coming but I get more out of it than I give – just to see a patient smile or be with a family member, just to show them that they are not alone. We don’t like a person to die alone, so even if I just sit there and stroke their shoulder or hold their hand, to have someone with you makes all the difference.
Q: Are there a broad variety of jobs at Mount Sinai for volunteers?
A: Yes, there are jobs with patients, in the office, at the gift shop. Many volunteers help the staff in the offices, while others work directly with patients.
Q: What is it in your personality that makes you want to work with patients?
A: I really don’t know because basically I am very shy. I always have talked to people of course, but I would not go up to a strange person just to say hello, but here you have to introduce yourself right away. I realize that when I come here there are so many people who are lonely and afraid and they welcome someone to talk to. I lost a daughter about nine years ago and I was happy that as soon as the shiva was over, I could start working here again. I was glad to be surrounded by people and by the same token, I think that the patients and their families are also glad to have somebody they can talk to. The main thing in palliative care is that you have to know how to listen.
Q: How have you learned how to listen?
A: Through experience I guess. I like to see people happier. These patients are in the last stages of their life so we want to give them as much quality as possible. This hospital is amazing, especially palliative care. I think the nurses and the staff here are hand picked- they have such good hearts. You will see doctors who sit with their patients for a long time. It’s not just a job, it’s really that they love what they do. This is why I stay. I am 90 years old now and I am still at it!
Q: What advice would you give someone thinking about becoming a volunteer in palliative care?
A: You have to have an understanding of people. You have to know how to listen. You follow the conversation and you go according to their lead. You talk to them about anything, their hobbies or whatever, but not their sickness unless they bring it up. And if there are questions you cannot answer you tell them to speak to their doctor.
You have to know how to deal with the families because the families are suffering so much. A volunteer should never say, “I know how you feel” because nobody knows how they feel unless you have been there yourself.
You know I fell into this. I was never in the medical field. I guess I just love people. Volunteers have to first take a six-week course and then they usually follow an experienced volunteer for a few days or weeks until they strong enough and positive enough about what they have to do. Then they can go on their own. I had a young lady who followed me and now she is on her own on Mondays.
Q: Do you feel that you are part of a team here?
A: Oh definitely, yes. I am also invited to listen and take part in the doctors’ rounds because very often patients tell you things that they would not confide in anyone else. If it’s confidential I would not say anything, but if it’s pertaining to their illness and they could be helped, then I speak up. It’s also very important for us to know some of the patient history.
Q: I have heard the term “a good death”. What does that mean to you?
A: It makes a big difference how the death is. From personal experience, my husband had a good death. On the other hand, my daughter who passed away suffered so much because they could not control the pain. If a person can go to sleep without further pain, that I consider a good death.
We are fortunate that we have extremely good doctors here, doctors who are patient, and they talk to patients and they tell things as they are. You have to be told unless the parent, or the mate or the child does not want the patient to know how bad it is. So the doctors always say, “if you don’t want them to know, we won’t tell them unless they ask, but if they ask, we have to tell the truth.” That’s important because people want to get their things in order. I personally would want to know the truth all the time.
When my daughter passed away I came back to volunteer and this was the best medicine. I have lost just above everybody - my parents, my husband, my daughter, my brother, my sister, and I lost most of the family, aunts and uncles and cousins in concentration camps way back. So I have been surrounded by death but life goes on for the living. I really thought that I would follow my husband right away but no, 17 years later I am still here! I have been very blessed.