Mercedes Vega: There is nothing like being near the end to learn a lot about the journey
Updated: Nov 27, 2022
We start a series of interviews with volunteers working for the different teams within the iLIVE Project to know more about their thoughts and experiences. Also, we want to know how the iLIVE Project program for volunteers can help shape en-of-life care in hospitals. We start this series with Mercedes Vega, volunteer at Cudeca Foundation in Spain, who has volunteered for eight years.
How did you start volunteering at Cudeca?
I had an interview with Inma, who runs the unit, and she was the one who indicated that my profile was perfect for the admissions unit. So I started as all volunteers start: with more energy and more desire than awareness. I started with fears. Of messing up, of what I would find. But also with a lot of support from the Foundation and the department. I felt very guided and supported.
What do you think was that 'perfect profile' you had?
I don't know, I did have a hospital background in a children's oncology volunteer programme for several years. And then I spent several years at the Teléfono de la Esperanza (Telephone line for psychological support), for which I trained for three years. Empathy in listening, being inside a hospital, knowing the limits in front of the health workers and living with them in the day-to-day life of a hospital... I imagine that these were the points that distinguished me. I spent seven years as a volunteer in children's oncology and five years at Teléfono de la Esperanza, including my training period.
What has volunteering given you and what have you learnt?
I am still learning, we are still walking hand in hand. It has shaped me as a person. What it teaches you most about life, is being close to death. Not only for the patient, but also for the relatives and the situations that arise at the end of life. If it is important to be there at the birth and gestation of a person, it is just as important to be there at the end. It is nice to be with them, it is true that there is a lot of suffering, but one bears it. There is nothing like being near the end to learn a lot from the journey. I learn a lot from life and how to face suffering, to face the small ups and downs of life that are often not as big as we make them out to be. Because when you are close to a person who is at the end of their life, the reflection about their lives teaches you a lot and it puts the puzzle of what you have in your life back together again.
For me, a visit to Cudeca puts my feet on the ground to face many things that I relativise and see in a different way. And that is what the patients and relatives and fellow healthcare workers teach me. We all learn in this process that we will all go through in the end. If there is one thing that is certain in this life, it is that at some point it will end.
And how do we approach that end? I always say that there are as many ways to die as there are ways to live. I always imagine how I will approach that end and I don't know, it's not clear to me. There are people who say they are not afraid of death, but they say it when they are healthy, when the end is near they can come and tell me about it.
What has had the greatest impact on you over the years?
Suffering always has an impact. When people ask me I always say that all stories have their suffering, and they deserve as much respect as any other. What has had the greatest impact on me and what I have learned is the most is about the way of life. One approaches leaving as one has lived. The simplest people are the ones who teach you the strongest lesson at the end.
We take care of elderly people who have suffered a lot, who have been hungry, cold, who have worked in unpleasant things, and they tell you about their hard life and approach the end with the same acceptance with which they have lived that life. That makes an impact. It is also shocking when a person doesn't want to leave and fights not to leave. That hurts. Those empty looks that tell you nothing and tell you everything. When a person verbalises fear, you leave it in the report, but you can't do it with looks.
Both things make an impact, the people who don't want to leave and who suffer and the people who lovingly accept that they have to leave and leave a lot of love here. That gives you a lesson that fills you up.
In relation to iLIVE, how is your work at the Maritime Hospital?
It is very interesting. Bringing cudeca-style palliative care to a public hospital is complex. But I am very excited. It is something very necessary. We are opening a very important gap. In a room in the Marítimo there is a lot of pain, because they are very tired and it is another way of caring and they tell you about everything. For us it is a burden, it has a high emotional and physical cost, but it is very gratifying because you see that it is something that can be done and must be done. They need someone trained who is prepared to alleviate that pain and accompany them. That is very necessary in a public hospital. And although it is complex, because we are opening a gap where there was none, we are all learning from each other. We from the public hospital and the public hospital from us. It is something that is going to take us to port and that in my humble opinion is very important. We have to put our heart into it, which we have. We have the will and the enthusiasm.
What does a volunteer programme such as iLIVE provide for sick people and their relatives?
When it comes to relatives, they are shocked because normally the one who comes in is the health worker, in a white coat, the professional who has the least time. We go in relaxed, asking them what they need and they break down and tell you what is bothering them at that moment, they tell you things that they are not going to tell a health worker. And I can't solve them all, but we can talk together and make them feel listened to.
And the same goes with the patient, we can talk about how they feel, what they need, if they are eating well or if they are able to rest. And sometimes they tell you things that they don't tell their children so as not to make them suffer, but they need to tell about that things.
That doesn't exist in a public hospital, to come in without a gown, without haste, to do what we have to do. Talk to a family member calmly so that they can unburden themselves. The emotional exhaustion is very hard. Even though the psychologist is there, we give them that space to talk in peace and confidence.
Send a message to someone who is thinking about volunteering
To be a volunteer is to grow as a person, to give to the universe and to the people around you that love and that time that you can offer and that in return you will receive a lot. In the case of Cudeca, the training we receive makes us grow as people and you come into contact with "chosen" people like you, with whom you will share experiences that will make you grow as a person.