Famed American poet Maya Angelou said “If you find it in your heart to care for somebody else, you will have succeeded.” If this is true, then in her own quiet, humble way, Janet Topham is a success. Having served as a hospice volunteer for five years with Mercy Medical Center–Clinton, she was honored, along with other Iowa hospice volunteers, as “Hospice Volunteer of the Year” at a recent ceremony in Ames. November is designated as National Hospice Month.

Over the years, Topham has served as a companion and friend, providing a quiet presence to families as well as the patients who are coming close to the end of their lives.

Topham doesn’t think her patients feel the circumstances they find themselves in as grave.

“They’re still alive and we’re basically giving respite to the family,” Topham explained. “When I started this I didn’t realize that we’d be visiting nursing homes. I thought I’d be giving caretakers relief more than anything.”

But many times she has found herself at the 11th hour holding a patient’s hand and providing comfort.

As a Realtor, Topham has a very busy business schedule. But she believes everybody should have an hour or two a week during which they are not doing something.

“I mark it off on my calendar like a regular appointment,” she explained.

According to Topham, there are many good volunteers.

“There have been situations where (volunteers) have been back-to-back for people when they don’t have a family member who is able to come in right away for them,” she said. This also is true for those patients who have no family at all.

Jeanne McKenzie, volunteer services coordinator for Mercy, describes “back-to-back” as an 11th hour volunteer.

They provide comfort to “a patient who doesn’t have family anymore or the family is a great distance away and they need time to get back to be with that patient who may actually be dying,” McKenzie explained. “We have volunteers… who come in and sit with that patient, sometimes around the clock, with volunteers working shifts.”

McKenzie says it’s comforting for the family to know somebody is sitting with their loved one, someone who has been trained with a caring presence.

“Jan has been so good about stepping up and doing these kinds of things — these 11th hour situations,” McKenzie said.

Topham said she never thinks about dealing with death.

“I’m just someone there holding their hands,” she said. “Many volunteers have experienced this themselves.”

Topham said she helped her mother-in-law with her father-in-law when they sent him home from the hospital — telling the family he wouldn’t live a week.

“She couldn’t do it by herself so I stayed there to help,” Topham related. “This was in Kansas, the middle of nowhere. Two months later I was still down there, and I was working at that time too.”

Topham says it’s difficult for family members to take leave and be with their family.

“We had hospice. I came back and saw an ad in the paper wanting volunteers and I decided I wanted to do that.”

McKenzie is glad she did.

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