Holston Valley Ensures No Patient Dies Alone, Partners With Community To Provide Comfort In Final Moments

After a long day at work, many employees would prefer to go home instead of spending a lot of extra, unpaid time at the office. But recently, that’s exactly what Holston Valley Medical Center’s Billie Skelton did, leaving an indelible mark on a patient in the process.

Skelton, a switchboard operator, received a call from the hospital’s cardiac unit regarding a patient in distress, with failing vitals and no family present. Holston Valley’s on-call chaplain visited the patient intermittently, but, due to additional pressing needs at the hospital, was unable to stay nonstop.

The man’s situation weighed on Skelton’s mind. Once she finished her shift, she immediately went to his side. She stayed into the night, and nursing staff noticed a marked improvement in the patient’s breathing and heart rate, as well as less agitation and suffering.  

“Billie’s story represents an extraordinary measure taken in an all-too-ordinary situation,” said Virginia Frank, Holston Valley’s president. “The end of one’s life is a difficult thing to consider, even when a person is surrounded by loved ones. It’s infinitely harder when there’s no one there to provide comfort and support.

“Her actions are a perfect example of the Healing Environment philosophy that permeates Wellmont Health System.”

In that spirit, several Holston Valley Shepherds – empowered co-workers who suggest and help implement operational changes in the hospital for the benefit of patients and staff – set to work on a project to ensure no patient would ever die alone.

Jason Searcy, Holston Valley’s director of oncology services, was one of the Shepherds who facilitated the program. The team developed the initiative with help from the hospital’s volunteer services, pastoral care, hospice, switchboard and oncology departments but relied on volunteers from the community to put the plan into action.

“The Shepherds and staff can’t take full credit for this,” Searcy said. “Once we started the program, we saw a tremendous turnout from the community. They really made this happen.”

Each team is assigned a month of duty, during which time its members take turns carrying a special pager. When nursing staff at Holston Valley identify a solitary patient near the end of life, a message is sent to the pager.

“The response from the community has been overwhelming,” Searcy said. “Churches, businesses, you name it, have formed teams to serve on this project. It’s really touched people’s hearts.”

One of the teams, consisting of co-workers from Holston Medical Group, was the first to receive a call. The team members rotated at the patient’s bedside for two days before Kim Rogers took the final watch.

“The team’s presence made all the difference,” Searcy said. “Even though patients at the end of life typically aren’t responsive, the volunteers from Holston Medical Group took it upon themselves to read to him, talk to him and comfort him. Sometimes, simply being present for a patient is all we can ask for, and it can mean the world.”

Since then, the project, dubbed Shepherds Watch, has been activated several times. The initiative is currently limited to Holston Valley’s W-3 unit, but Frank and Searcy plan to expand it throughout the hospital.

“The volunteers working on this project are such special spirits, and we won’t restrict them to one area for long,” Frank said. “This project is the perfect continuation of the compassionate, innovative care our co-workers, like Billie, have always delivered.”

Volunteers interested in helping with Shepherds Watch should contact Holston Valley’s volunteer services department at 423-224-6041. Before serving in their first rotation, all Shepherds Watch volunteers are required to participate in a training session.