When Maggie Atwood retired five years ago, she considered her options for volunteer work. A social worker with a private psychotherapy practice for the past 25 years, Atwood made a career of listening compassionately to people from all walks of life. So she chose to donate her time in a way that was a natural fit for her skills and personality.
Today, she takes that compassion and serves it up with a warm smile—and often a hug—as a lay spiritual volunteer for LincolnHealth, the former Miles Memorial Hospital in Damariscotta. She also serves as an on-call Compassionate Companion for the hospital, offering comfort to patients in their final days or hours of life.
“This is a way of keeping my hand in what I consider my life’s calling,” Atwood, 73, says. “It feels like a continuation of the work I did as a therapist, but it’s also nice to have it on my own terms as far as hours and flexibility.”
Twice a week, Atwood spends several hours at the hospital, dropping by patients’ rooms to chat, listen or simply be a supportive presence. Often the nurses will refer specific patients in need of encouragement. “This is as important to the nursing staff as to the patients,” she says. “Everyone benefits when patients are receiving emotional support and one-on-one attention.”
Not all patients welcome a visit, especially when they are at their most vulnerable. She recalls one patient who was angry and bitter, lashing out at the staff. The first time she visited, he grumpily told her to leave. She did, but came again the next day. Met with the same scowl, she told him he must be going through a very hard time.
“The second I made eye contact, he broke down and cried, telling me how frightened he was,” she says. “We talked for a long time, and for many visits after that. Being able to let down his guard with me was transformational for him.”
Another time, Atwood visited a man who was critically ill and about to be transferred to a larger hospital. They talked for a while, and he seemed calmer when he left in the ambulance. Months later, she got a phone call from the man. He told her that their talk gave him hope, and he carried that hope with him through his illness and recovery.
“That’s what this work does. It helps people feel heard, cared for and comforted during some of their darkest hours,” Atwood says.
Connie Bright, director of volunteers for LincolnHealth, acknowledges that such work isn’t for everyone. Lay spiritual volunteers must complete a hospital-based training program, and additional training is required to be a Compassionate Companion.
“It takes a special kind of person to give from the heart without judgment,” Bright says. “Maggie comes to us with great insight into human behavior. People immediately sense how caring she is, and find it easy to open up to her.”
The Compassionate Companions program at LincolnHealth is part of a national organization called No One Dies Alone. Founded by an ICU nurse in 2001, there are today more than 800 NODA programs worldwide that provide the reassuring presence of a volunteer companion to dying patients who would otherwise be alone.
“Maggie is a gift to our hospital community,” Bright says. “She touches the heart and souls of so many patients.”
In her work with Compassionate Companions, Atwood typically gets a call from the hospital a few times a month. When she arrives at the bedside of a person in the last hours of life, she adjusts her comfort measures to whatever the patient needs. “Sometimes they want to talk, other times I’m asked to read aloud or sing a favorite song,” she says. “Just quietly holding their hand and being a loving presence is often enough.”
Atwood lives in Newcastle with her husband, John. Between them, they have eight children and seven grandchildren. An avid gardener, she can often be found in the summer months at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, where she volunteers as a docent.
“It’s a privilege and a gift to share this deepest of human experiences,” she says. “There is sadness, yes, but I am also moved by the indomitable spirit of people facing death. I truly love what I do.”
For the many patients who have encountered Maggie Atwood during times of grief and illness, they would agree that her gifts of compassion help ease the way.
Lori Douglas Clark is a journalist, poet and community volunteer who lives with her family in Readfield.