By Sebastian Moraga

In December of 2019, an 11-letter word entered our lexicon and changed the lives of millions of people forever.

The coronavirus pandemic, an illness as sudden as it was complex, affected all of us in one form or another.

Now that vaccines have become available, and masks have become an indispensable part of our wardrobe, and we have lost half a million of our friends and neighbors, it is a good time to ask ourselves where we go from here: How should we do things differently at EOLWA after COVID-19 becomes history? How will our interactions change, how will the role of volunteers change?

We approached some of our distinguished leaders, volunteers, and board members and asked them these very questions.  Below are their answers, edited for clarity and space. We have listed these people in no particular order, and not everyone we reached answered every question.

How will or should EOLWA do things differently as an organization, post-COVID-19?

BETH GRIGGS, VCA and Team Leader of the Bellingham/Northwest group:

“EOLWA has been constantly evolving to meet the needs of our clients, including addressing racial equity in health care. The willingness of the organization to respond to what’s needed is phenomenal and what makes it so great. I hope the organization continues to look for ways we can better serve our community and each other.”

ROBERT FREE, President, Board of Directors, End of Life Washington.

“Surprisingly, the pandemic has had some positive results for EOLWA. One is that we have become a truly statewide organization, with staff, board members, and volunteers throughout the state able to meet via Zoom. Two, is that even though our staff has grown under Judy Kinney’s leadership (four full-time and four part-time employees), we are able to maintain our small, inexpensive office space because employees are able to successfully work remotely. These developments will not change post-pandemic. I will limit my comments to the above.”

DR. ROBERT WOOD, Volunteer Medical Advisor, Board of Directors, End of Life Washington.

“Pre-pandemic in seeking participating physicians for our clients whose own physicians won’t participate, we would try to find physicians in the clients’ geographic areas, since many of our clients are bedridden or have difficulty traveling to a new physician’s office. Within the pandemic, and I think from here on out, many more client-physician contacts to qualify patients for death with dignity law are occurring through tele-video methods. This simplifies the work of finding physicians as we can choose from any of the helpful physicians statewide, not just those who may (or may not) help in a particular region.

DR. ROY GRAVES, EOLWA Volunteer Medical Advisor:

“I would enjoy more interaction via Zoom with other docs.  Because I live in Anacortes, travel is an issue. I am hoping Zoom meetings will continue. It makes my interactions much easier.”

What will happen to in-person contact v. Zoom meetings, do you think?

BG: “Zoom meetings have enabled us to have closer connections with our teammates, as we are all over the northwest part of this state. Coming together monthly is less difficult and having core staff in our meetings has been fantastic, making us feel part of the larger whole. I feel more connected through Zoom. But, I prefer to limit client contact to phone and in person. There really is nothing like a hand on a shoulder, or any number of compassionate connections VCAs make when supporting clients and their families during this deeply intimate time. I think of us like ‘Call The Midwife.”’

RW: “More meetings will continue to happen via Zoom or other meeting software as the pandemic fades. While these techno-meetings don’t facilitate the ’team’ spirit that large clusters of volunteers meeting together engender, they provide safety, convenience, and efficiency. But I hope we’ll still find ways to gather and to recognize the wonderful people assembled for this important work.”

How has the role of volunteers (as well as the number of them varied during the pandemic, and how will it vary in the days ahead?

BG: “The nature of this work is deeply personal. It has been difficult to find those connections during COVID-19, but we have made it work. I am the team leader of the Bellingham group. We have seen one hospice (Hospice of the Northwest, a non-Catholic affiliated organization) step up and provide assistance when VCAs have not been able to attend clients in person. It has been said that having hospice and the medical community do “our work” as a matter of health care would be the best possible outcome. Medical aid-in-dying should be part of healthcare. That said, having hospice step in has made our work seem less necessary. That is just one hospice and the experience of just some VCAs.”

RW: “Once the pandemic began we strongly advised volunteers not to meet with clients and their support folks in-person, especially indoors, we modified our guidances accordingly, and especially instructions for helping when clients took the medicines. We followed and promoted safe interaction guidelines: hand washing, masking, physical distancing. Some volunteers meet folks in homes regardless but carefully. I’m aware of a couple of volunteers who decided not to finish training as opportunities to meet in person with clients disappeared early in the pandemic. 

Now that we and our clients are mostly vaccinated, perhaps these volunteers will return. I don’t believe we lost any active volunteers before the pandemic, but (EOLWA VolunteerServices Manager) Cassa (Sutherland) could confirm my impression that we added maybe half a dozen client volunteers during 2020.” (Note: Cassandra Sutherland confirmed that this was correct.)

Optional bonus question: What will occur to the impact of tools such as TeleHealth and TeleMed?

BG: “These medical tools are invaluable, as our clients are all over the state and often have no access to doctors who are willing to prescribe. The tools also make it easier for doctors to support our work if they don’t have to drive all over creation to consult on a bedridden patient. We are always looking for doctors to join our network and this makes it more attractive.”

RW: “Our volunteers don’t use TeleHealth and TeleMed (and I don’t have experience with either). Volunteers are mostly connecting with clients and support people by phone, and physicians who are helping our clients are mostly using Zoom, What’sApp, FaceTime, or maybe Skype. I recently had a virtual visit with a physician using an application accessible through the clinic’s website.”

To read the previous article, “What Difference Does a Year Make? Let’s Find Out,” click here.

To read the next and final article, “DWD Making Strides in Western States,” click here.

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