Beginning Students in Advanced Mortality

Linda A. Cicero

When co-terminal master’s student Ariel Sklar first started visiting her hospice patient, the woman loved to watch TV and chat about what her favorite soap opera actresses were wearing. She also talked about her fears of “not being there anymore” when she died.

Four months later, the woman “was asleep more and more, and had labored breathing,” Sklar says. “I just held her hand.”

From the time she signed up as a hospice volunteer in The Anthropology of Death and Dying, Sklar knew she would be providing companionship for people who were dying. She says the hard times were offset by all that she gained from the experience. “I love listening to people’s stories,” she says. “At the end of their lives, they want to be able to go back and frame everything, and you learn incredible things.”

That desire to help and to learn motivates the students who pursue hospice work with Ron Barrett, assistant professor of anthropological sciences. In autumn quarter, for the first time, freshmen were able to sign up as hospice volunteers as an independent-study add-on to the Introduction to the Humanities course Visions of Mortality, which Barrett co-teaches with Chris Bobonich, associate professor of philosophy.

“In hospice, you have to be there to provide company, compassion and a listening ear,” Barrett says. “It’s an interesting challenge for Stanford students, who want to fix everything.”

A medical anthropologist and former registered nurse, Barrett works with Pathways Hospice in Sunnyvale to provide service-learning opportunities for students interested in hospice and palliative care. He gets more applicants than he can accommodate, and selects six per term based on applicants’ essays, interviews, social skills and overall maturity. “Has a student experienced a recent, significant loss?” he asks. “If so, we want them to have had time to process that. We have to be sure they can be solid for the patients and their families, and we can’t have them falling apart.”

The students visit their patients weekly and keep journals about their experiences, which they discuss at class meetings each Friday afternoon. Some continue to visit patients after the quarter is over, and have started the club Stanford Hospice Workers.

“You have to care about people to care for them,” Barrett told his class on a recent afternoon. “But if you get overly attached, you can’t keep doing this.” Freshman Erin Dizon nodded in agreement. “She didn’t have the energy to talk the last time I was there,” Dizon said about the patient she was visiting. “I’m afraid she’s going to go, and I’d really like to get to know her better.”