With a background in medical social work, Valerie Alfano has focused her efforts for the last four years on working with hospice patients – and their families – as they face end-of-life issues.
Alfano says her time working at a long-term care facility fueled her interest in working in hospice care. She says those whose deaths were imminent were sent to the intensive care unit, which was on her floor.
“Naturally, I began to work with families, and help with end-of-life issues and things that were popping up,” she says.
Since losing her last paid position as a result of making a mandated report call because of alleged patient neglect or abuse, Alfano says she has stayed connected in the medical social work field by serving as an independent hospice consultant, primarily on a volunteer basis to agencies and other social workers, as she works toward her doctorate in social work. She anticipates earning the degree from Missouri State University in spring 2014.
Alfano says her philosophy in dealing with terminal patients is to “speak life,” which is to focus on positives and help them realize they still have purpose, even as their days draw to an end.
“Most of the time, they’ll still have one or two things – whether it be with family or something like that – that they have unfinished business with,” she adds. “Before somebody gets really bad and loses their faculties, sometimes it’s just a matter of getting an advance directive so the loved ones won’t have to make that decision of what they want done,” Alfano says, noting that her role in those cases is to make sure the patient’s voice is heard.
Even if loose ends have been tied up, Alfano says she can help the patients find purpose.“You have six months to live, and you have all of this family here. What can you offer them?” she says. “Some have made a scrapbook, others have done something more than just sit there and wait to die.”
Alfano credits her faith with helping her not to fear death but to help others embrace it.
“I believe it’s the biggest honor ever … is when you’re standing there listening to someone’s last breath, or you’re holding their hand and you feel them let go and you feel that moment when they’re gone,” says Alfano, whose assistance to the surviving family members usually continues for at least six months after a death. Click here for full coverage of the 2012 Salute to Health Care.