Hospice volunteer understands what brings comfort to patients

Mike Haskey/mhaskey@ledger-enquirer.comColumbus Hospice volunteer Mary Phelps visits Thursday morning with patient Winston McQuaig.
Mike Haskey/mhaskey@ledger-enquirer.comColumbus Hospice volunteer Mary Phelps visits Thursday morning with patient Winston McQuaig.

Winston McQuaig Sr. selected a comfortable chair, sat down and began talking about his military service during World War II.

The 90-year-old veteran recalled time spent in both New Guinea and the Philippines.

McQuaig also chatted about his children and grandchildren, smiling and describing them as "the finest ever."

As he spoke, Mary Phelps sat nearby and listened intently. Occasionally, she would ask a question to keep the narrative continuing.

McQuaig is a patient at the Columbus Hospice House on Moon Road. Phelps is a hospice volunteer.

For 25 years, the 84-year-old Phelps has been donating her time, making life more comfortable for people such as McQuaig and their loved ones by providing needed companionship.

"We help families through a tough period," Phelps said.

Columbus Hospice offers compassionate end-of-life care for patients who have a life expectancy of 6 months or less.

Volunteers receive extensive and ongoing training designed to teach them the many aspects of working with sick and terminally ill patients and their family members.

While Phelps loves a conversation, she said never feels the necessity to talk or to be "bubbly."

"You do not always have to be uplifting. Sometimes, the patient just wants you to sit. They just want you to be there," Phelps said.

She recalled one woman who thanked Phelps for taking care of her mother.

"She said her mother really liked me because I didn't talk her to death. I would just sit and rub her mother's hand. Sometimes, I just watch the person sleep. They know if they need anything, I can get it," she said.

However, there are some who like to talk up a storm. Phelps recalled one patient who loved to ask her trivia questions.

"I would go home and look in my encyclopedia for answers," she said.

Phelps said one thing hospice volunteers do not talk about is their own personal problems.

Now retired, Phelps began serving as a hospice volunteer while still working as a registered nurse at Martin Army Community Hospital on Fort Benning.

The Columbus Hospice House did not exist then. She would visit patients at their home or in a nursing facility. There was one patient for whom she had to drive 25 miles

to get to the house.

She said most patients prefer to stay in their home. "It is where they are familiar with the surroundings," she said.

She said hospice is there for the caregivers, as well, as the ailing person.

"It gives them time off so their health is not affected," Phelps said.

Phelps was born in York, Ala., but spent most of her childhood in Ohio.

"We were poor, but I grew up in an atmosphere of trying to help others. So many people did so much for me. I have to give back," she said.

She came to Columbus when her husband, Harvey, was stationed at Fort Benning. He died in 2006.

She has one son, three grandchildren and one great grandchild.

People of all ages are hospice patients, and both young and old volunteer. Phelps remarked that older volunteers often make a better companion because they are more experienced with life's tragedies.

She said people may volunteer for hospice and not deal directly with patients.

"People can help in a lot of different ways. You can bake a cake, work in the office, help with fundraising," Phelps said. "It is all very rewarding."

Terri Roberts is the director of volunteer services for Columbus Hospice. She praised the work of Phelps.

"Mary's gift of her time and talents has made a huge impact on our organization. Her 25 years of dedicated service providing compassionate care for our patients, their families and assisting our staff is priceless," Roberts said.

When told the number of years Phelps has given to hospice, McQuaig remarked, "Twenty-five years, well, that's wonderful."