Everyday Ministries: Karen of NODA

EDITOR’S NOTE: In addition to being a seminary that offers eight graduate level degrees, including theology, ministry and counseling, with specializations in ministries that emphasize the arts, plus a variety of lifelong learning programs, CTS is also a place for people interested in exploring and expanding opportunities for ministry in everyday life. Take, for example, Anne Roberts who currently works in the office of Edwin Aponte, CTS Dean of Academic Affairs, while she finishes her Master of Arts Degree in Social Work. Anne volunteers several hours a month at Eskenazi Health for a program called No One Dies Alone (NODA). She brought the program, and the 2003 CTS graduate who heads up NODA, Rev. Karen Estle LMHC, to our attention. Following is some background information on both the program and herself edited from Karen’s own words – JW.

Eskenazi Health began researching the possibility of creating a No One Dies Alone (NODA) program early in 2012. The original program started in Eugene, Oregon, in the 1990’s, when a nurse promised a patient she would return to be with him because he was afraid of dying alone. When she returned, though, he had already passed away. We bought their ‘how to’ book and made several modifications for Eskenazi Health. I remember, at one point, the Oregon site said there were more than 400 NODA programs across the country in nursing facilities, hospitals, and assisted living communities.

I was involved in the planning of the Eskenazi Health program from the beginning and assumed leadership of it in early 2013. We recruited volunteers, did orientations on end-of-life care, helped applicants navigate the system to become hospital volunteers, helped research and create plans for parking and tours, and conducted training, including staff-training, on how to initiate a vigil. 

Patients continue to teach us that all people do not die in the same way so we’re constantly updating our training and procedures. As a city-county hospital, we serve a diverse population. I love it when we debrief after a vigil and a volunteer says, “I thought, because the patient was homeless, I would have a problem but all our differences just fell away. This is one of the most amazing things I have ever done.”

We kicked off our program on April 26, 2013 with our first vigil during which NODA volunteers stay with patients 24/7 in three hour shifts for eight-and- a-half days. We quickly learned that we needed more volunteers. Right now, we have 67 but find that with vacations, final exams and family priorities, we still need more. People who are interested in volunteering should email: NODA@eskenazihealth.edu or call 317/880-8263 for information on how to get started. Volunteer candidates need to attend our two-hour orientation before hospital volunteer-training can start. This screens out those who come to witness and save souls at the death bed, or come for reasons not suited to our goals of presence and comfort. NODA is about being present as one human to another, listening and comforting through the dying process.

My title of ‘Spiritual Advisor’ was given to my position before I arrived. It’s meant to remind staff that I do not work out of the chaplain’s office. My role is to help assess the needs of palliative care patients. I am a 2003 CTS graduate with a Master of Arts degree in Pastoral Care & Counseling. I started work at Wishard Hospital on April 14, 2003. We moved to the new hospital, Eskenazi Health, last December.

I am ordained in a Cooperative Baptist Church and currently attend Central Christian Church downtown. I am a licensed mental health clinician and came to this job with a lengthy history of social service and hospice work. I use all of these skills with patients and staff. I make rounds with our physicians, meet privately with patients, teach medical students, dabble in art therapy, and counsel and teach patients guided imagery for anxiety. I often attend emotional family meetings when the diagnosis and medical updates are discussed. 

One last story. During our first year of the No One Dies Alone program, a policeman was sitting with a patient while a NODA vigil was in progress across the hall. He noticed the steady stream of people, a very eclectic group, that continued long after visiting hours had ended. Each would stay for a few hours, then leave when someone else arrived. The next day, the officer questioned one of our volunteers and, eventually, me. Who were all these visitors? Do they know the patient? “No,” I told him. “They’re all volunteers who sign up their availability and come and sit with patients in three hour shifts. They read to them, pray with them, hold their hands, and listen. Mostly, they reassure these people that they are not alone . . . and they do a great job.”

He was amazed. “You don’t understand,” he said. “Police see the worst things people do. The ugly. The really terrible. We don’t see the good things that people do. Over time, it makes you lose hope. You start to expect the worst from people. But, you do this . . . here at a hospital.” I nodded, and swear I could see his hope returning.

NODA is a way of returning death and dying to the community where it should be. Perhaps it will help return hope to our community as well.

If you are a CTS graduate and would like to build awareness and support for your everyday ministry, contact jwhitman@cts.edu.

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