Roland Brummer came home from nursing school the day before his father’s death. He looked at his father and thought, “I don’t want to see him die. Maybe we should take him to the hospital.”
Brummer talked with his father, who was alert. He said, “Dad, do you want to go to the hospital?” And three times his father said no. He died 12 hours later, in his own home, in his own bed, with his wife of 45 years next to him.
“We had intimate talks about his conversations with God at that time and his feelings about his upcoming death,” Brummer said. “On the last day of his life, I experienced his serenity and his peacefulness in the face of his imminent death. I also experienced his warmth and his love towards me and others in our family.
“I firmly believe that I received my calling to be a cancer nurse as well as to care for dying patients from my father as his dying gift to me,” Brummer said. “My life would be so much different if I had not had the opportunity to share those intimate moments with [him].”
Brummer, who worked as an oncology nurse for 28 years, grew up in Randall, Minnesota, and has lived in St. Cloud since 1986. He and his wife, Kathleen, have two grown sons and two grandsons.
After retiring from nursing in 2017, Brummer was selective about how he wanted to spend his retirement. He knew he wanted to do volunteer work, but he wanted to make sure it was meaningful. Because of his experiences with death and dying, he decided to be part of the St. Cloud Hospital’s “No One Dies Alone” (NODA) program.
The NODA program is present at several hospitals across the United States. St. Cloud Hospital initiated it in early 2011.
The program began “when nurses started to bring the need to our awareness,” said Laura Shrode, chaplain in the spiritual care department at the hospital. “They were noticing that more patients were alone in their last moments. Nursing staff wanted to be with the patients, but, unfortunately, often had too many other demands and were not able to spend as much time just being with the dying patient.
“Through the use of chaplains and volunteers, we try to provide a listening and compassionate presence to the dying patient,” Shrode added. “It is such a sacred time and a beautiful ministry. Many of our chaplains and volunteers will speak to how their experiences with the dying can be such a holy experience. There is not much to say or do in those moments, which for some can be uncomfortable. It is more about just being there, possibly holding the patient’s hand, reminding them that they are not alone.”
St. Cloud Hospital currently has 38 NODA volunteers. Time spent with a NODA patient is referred to as a “vigil.”
“We are always looking for more volunteers to add to our pool,” Shrode said. “The NODA volunteer program is unique in how flexible it is. Volunteers are not committed to a certain number of hours per week or month. Rather, when we hear of a patient actively dying in the hospital, we send out an alert to our volunteers. They are encouraged to sign up online for a time slot that works for them.”
Shrode noted that, despite their best efforts, there is no way to guarantee a NODA volunteer will be available at all times. On average, the program experiences about one vigil a month. However, Shrode said, from July to September 2018, there were no vigils. But between Sept. 8 and Nov. 8, there were 11.
Many NODA volunteers, like Brummer, have been drawn to the program because of their own personal experiences with death, Shrode said.
“Some were present when one of their own loved ones died and know how important it was to have someone be there,” she said. “Others were not able to be present when a loved one died, but other friends or family were able to step in. As a form of gratitude, they want to pay it forward for those family members who are not able to get here in time.
“I believe our patients are grateful as well,” she added. “Even more grateful, however, is often the family of the dying patient. Perhaps they are coming from hours away and are trying their best to get the next flight here, but still won’t make it for several hours. Or maybe they have been at the bedside of their dying mother for seven days straight and just need a night for themselves to go home, shower and refuel. Yet, they don’t want their mother to be alone. They often are comforted knowing someone will be with her some of the time.”
Between his work and his volunteering with NODA, Brummer said he has developed a natural curiosity about death.
“Being there at the time of death or very close to the time of death, you can’t help but wonder or think about your own spiritual beliefs and what people feel about life and death and what happens after death. It’s a very life-changing experience. It is such a privileged moment,” he said.
“When you go in as a NODA volunteer, you don’t know anything about the person. You don’t even know what they’re dying from. You just know that they’re dying and they want someone with them. Your only responsibility is to be present to them,” he added.
Brummer said when he is volunteering with NODA, he sometimes sits quietly at the patient’s bedside, and at times, he might talk to them or hold their hand. Mostly, he hopes his presence brings them peace.
“When my father died, he was so much at peace. He was laughing as best he could with the energy he had and seemed very much at peace. And through all my work, that is what I tried to bring to the person who was dying and to their loved ones. You can’t always do that, I’m no miracle worker, but if you can bring any sense of peacefulness, I know it changes people’s lives. It changed mine.”
And it has changed countless others. Brummer, who attends St. Francis Xavier Parish in Sartell, particularly recalled being present at the death of a 23-year-old woman.
“The night she died, I was with her. I’d never met her or her family before 3 p.m. that afternoon,” he said. Her mom was there and her sister was there and her brother was there and her dad was there when she died. Her dad knelt at her bedside after she died and tears were just falling from his face. It was probably the most intense grief I had ever seen.”
Four years later, Brummer received a letter from the woman’s younger sister. At the time of her death, the sister was in college, studying to be a teacher. After her sister died, she went back to college but decided instead to become a nurse.
“And she wrote me four years later to tell me, ‘You made a great influence upon me, on my decision in life.’ And I honestly can tell you that I don’t remember a single word I said to her,” he said. “It was simply from being present at her sister’s death.”
To learn more about NODA, contact the St. Cloud Hospital spiritual care department by calling 320-251-2700, ext. 54621, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.