“Precious memories, how they linger, how they ever flood my soul.”
These are lyrics from one of Alan Jackson’s songs on his “Precious Memories” album, but they’re words that speak directly to Dottie Hall, who has served hundreds of Blount Memorial Hospice patients and their families. “I think anybody who is a volunteer knows what that means.”
Hall, who loves to tell the stories of people she meets, is hanging her Hospice volunteer hat up this year after assisting patients and families in hospice care, as well as the bereaved, for 25 years of unpaid service.
She was recognized at Blount Memorial’s annual Hospice Volunteer Appreciation Luncheon earlier this year by her fellow volunteers, where she also was presented with a Certificate of Appreciation from the State of Tennessee and Governor Bill Haslam for “outstanding service in the best interests and in the highest traditions of the State of Tennessee.”
Hall’s interest in hospice care originated from circumstances surrounding her own family. “My mother was dying, and she had been up in Ohio in poor shape. We had always told her, ‘Mom, when you can’t do this anymore, let us know. We want you to come and live with us.’”
It wasn’t long before her mom made the move from Ohio to Tennessee, and Hall said, coincidentally, the newspaper had an article announcing that hospice was starting at Blount Memorial. The program officially began in 1981.
“It was a God thing,” she says. “My mom was one of the first patients.” In establishing her mom in the program, Hall met a “wonderful woman nurse, Sharon White – who is now Sharon Bailey” and Hall recalls that Bailey appeared to “run it all” from her office on the top floor of the hospital.
“When my momma died, I wanted to become a volunteer right away because they needed volunteers,” Hall recalled, remembering reading the request for help in the newspaper. “But Sharon advised me to wait,” Hall said. “She said, ‘No, I want you to wait. I want you to wait until you experience your own grief before you become a volunteer.’” Hall obliged, and she was in the second training class of volunteers. “That was a blessing to me.”
Hall’s first assignments were in Greenback, near where she lived. One of her very first patients was an infant. “I didn’t know what I was doing,” she shared with her fellow volunteers. However, it quickly appeared that she did. “Obviously, I didn’t administer to the baby,” she said. “I administered to the parents.” Hall recalls being in awe of this couple. “You would never know if you hadn’t been told that there was a baby in that home who wasn’t going to live.”
For this couple, Hall’s role was simply to be “the listener.” The couple shared their stories with Hall through emotions, feelings, concerns, fears and worries – because as Hall said, “They couldn’t tell anyone else those things, but they knew they could tell me.” And she encouraged her fellow volunteers that it’s this type of compassion that volunteering is all about. “All of your experiences are like that. I want you to think not about what I did, but how that experience has become part of your life in some way or another.”
Early in her volunteering years with Blount Memorial Hospice, Hall also was asked to speak to a conference at the hospital. “Sharon honored me with the request, but I was scared to death. Share an experience in my own grieving?!?” Hall described the hardest part of grieving in her own life – going to the mailbox.
“You know that grief you get when someone dies and you’re out somewhere and you see that person who looks like the person you’ve lost? It’s that kind of grief, and mine was going to the mailbox to get a birthday card for our son, and there not being one from momma,” she recalled. “I cried all the way back into the house.”
Hall and her family moved from Blount County to Birmingham, Ala. and then to North Carolina, where she continued her involvement with hospice at a hospital in Canton. “I worked in the office there, and I got started in something I didn’t think I’d ever be able to do: bereavement.” Hall recounted the training she experienced, but also pondered one final question. “I just couldn’t figure out how this was going to work. I kept asking myself, ‘How can people want to share their experiences with me when I never knew the person who died? The grievers had never met me – how would they entrust that with me?’”
Lo and behold, Hall said, “it worked.” Daily, she called on survivors, and there was one special man who wanted her to call, no matter what. “He was moving out of state, but he wanted me to keep calling,” she shared, also remembering the morning coffee she’d have with another woman.
“This was my best experience. I met a lady whose husband had passed away. She wanted me to come over and have breakfast with her – coffee and a sweet roll or something – and her cat would sit in the chair by me,” Hall recounted, with a smile. “She wanted to relive things (about her husband), and it wasn’t that her family didn’t love her, but they knew all of this.” Hall recognized that the companionship she provided to this woman was what she needed the most, and she knew it meant the world to the woman, “so that’s why I kept doing it,” Hall said. “I never got over the fact that we became so close when I had never known her when her husband was alive.”
About 12 years ago, Hall returned to Blount County – and she again came right back to Blount Memorial Hospice. The program looked different, as it had become “more recognized” in Hall’s eyes. “Back in the day when I first got started, I never understood that there weren’t really doctors in leadership, but it was such a new concept in many parts of the country.”
Wanting to re-establish as a volunteer, she came to visit Blount Memorial’s then-hospice volunteer coordinator, Sarah Wimmer. “Sarah did something that makes me very tearful,” Hall said. “She had gotten in contact with Sharon who was the originator to hospice for me, and asked her to come. When I came to meet with Sarah, there was Sharon. I felt like I was going through the complete circle.”
While Hall has stories upon stories from the patients and families she’s met in her 25-year journey of being “the listener,” she also has advice to share with others, especially the current – and future volunteers of hospice.
“The comrades of volunteers, nurses, doctors, social workers, chaplains – all of you people, you are a special bunch of people. I have said from day one, the best people to be around are hospice volunteers because they’ve been given the gift of compassion, and Lord knows today, we need compassion more than we ever have,” Hall shared, speaking from the heart.
“What you get out of serving people, goes far beyond what you ever give. You simply do it because you care, and you cannot describe what it’s like for strangers to trust you and allow you to serve them.”