We use the internet these days to search for just about anything and everything. And, when Jim Hitzeman searched for volunteer opportunities near his home base, he was drawn to two words used in a description of the volunteer work: Puppy Love. He was immediately intrigued by a Paradigm Health ad calling for volunteers and their pets.
Enter volunteer assistant and “star of the show” Hitzeman’sgolden retriever, Maggie.
“Not soon after completing volunteer training with Paradigm, I was matched up with a gentleman who was in hospice,” shares Hitzeman. “We had many of the same interests and I was hoping that bringing Maggie along with me for our visits would add another dimension of comfort and happiness for him and his family.”
Over the course of just a few months of visits, Hitzeman and Maggie would become welcome visitors for hospice patient Bill Bilgram. Research has shown that interacting with a friendly pet can help improve a hospice patient’s pain, reduce stress, and release endorphins that produce a calming effect. Certainly, both volunteer and dog enriched each day they spent with the Bilgrams.
“While petting Maggie became a ritual when we would visit, Bill also shared his early life stories and we had a mutual love of scripture,” says Hitzeman. “I know that each and every hospice patient has specific and individualized needs that they may want to share with me or a volunteer. I am always mindful of meeting them ‘wherever they are’ and providing whatever will make their day more enjoyable and provide comfort.”
Hitzeman is no stranger himself to understanding how important comfort and care are for someone facing an illness and an unsure future. Five years ago,Hitzeman was diagnosed with cancer and stage–4 carcinoma. When given the diagnosis, Hitzeman’s wife asked the doctor: Is there any hope? The doctor’s response: Of course, there is. And so, Hitzeman began to fight his way back to health.
“Facing an illness like this requires reflection, and as I began to battle the disease it required much contemplation of the question — ‘why am I here?’ and I was reminded that I was still here for a purpose and was ready to give back. I just wasn’t sure how yet,” says Hitzeman.
He also insists that alongside the companionship he and other volunteers can offer is including a good dose of laughter into each and every day. “It is so important to be able to laugh while at the same time offering compassion, support, hope, an empathetic ear, and so much more. I learned that during my illness. You just have to learn to laugh at yourself and find the positive in each situation.”
For hospice patient Bill Bilgram and his wife Renee, Hitzeman and Maggie became like their family. Hitzeman was even asked to be a pall bearer at Bill’s funeral. His deep, spiritual connection with both patient and family became something very special and the experience is one he will never forget. And, neither will the Bilgram family.
Bill’s wife Renee shares, “It takes a special kind of person to volunteer in support of an individual in hospice care. You know that your new friend is dying, and that you will be on their journey with them, whatever that might bring. Jimwas one such person. He never missed a visit, gave my husband something to look forward to each week, and brought a supportive, accepting, spiritual, and loving heart to every visit. My husband had someone to share his life story with from beginning to end, which was very important at this time in his life. Jim was a pallbearer at my husband’s funeral, and still stays in touch with me to ensure that I am okay.The spirit of volunteerism and philanthropy was born in this country and is part of our collective fiber. I am so very thankful that Paradigm Health’s hospice care matched Jim with my husband, Bill.”
Hitzeman concurs that the “giving back” can be so much more rewarding than the “receiving” — and he and Maggie will always hold the Bilgram family in their hearts.