A Look At The "No One Dies Alone" Program At St. John's Health Center

Saturday, 30 Mar 2013, 6:00:00 AM

Susan Cloke

Susan Cloke, Columnist
Santa Monica Mirror Archives
Susan Cloke, Columnist

“The scientist in me knows that we don’t thrive alone.

When we’re born we need human contact. Throughout our life we know from science

and from our own emotions that we need human contact to thrive. In dying we can

no more be alone that we can at birth,” says Melissa McRae, a native of Santa

Barbara who studied at both UCSB and UCLA.

She currently works at St. John’s as a Surgery

Administrative Coordinator, but also volunteers for the No One Dies Alone

(NODA) program at St. John’s Health Center.

“I’m not religious but I am spiritual,” she continues.

“It makes me feel good to be able to be with the dying person, to touch them,

to hold their hand, to make human contact. I want to be there for people. It

means a lot to me.”

NODA was the idea of a Critical Care Nurse named Sandra


Clarke wrote, “There seems to be an unwritten universal

protocol (among nurses) for the patient who is dying without the presence of friends or family. One’s other patients’

care will be taken over by nearby nurses. Rituals of passing are acted out: I’ve

seen nurses quietly singing, holding the hand of the dying, and, in all other

manners of behavior, showing care and respect while an individual passes on to

death. Nurses know the awe of being present at the birth or the death of

another human. I believe awe and privilege is an innate human response at these

times – the very essence of humanity.” 

That unwritten protocol became a formal program now

known as “No One Dies Alone” and it was founded at Sacred Heart Medical Center

in Eugene Oregon in November of 2001. Hospitals and health centers across the

country have followed their lead. St. John’s began their NODA program in 2004.

Sister Maureen Craig, a person happily known to all who

work at St. John’s says St. John’s has a long tradition, rooted in the mission

of the hospital, for compassionate care.

“I am thankful for the volunteers carrying our

traditions forward,” Craig says. “Through the years our numbers have diminished

and work that was once done by the Sisters has now become part of the lives of

our volunteers. We love the fact that the loving care we so believe in is being

continued by the hundreds of volunteers at St. John’s and by the remarkable

volunteers of the No One Dies Alone program.”

Grenda Pearlman, Director of Volunteer Services at St.

John’s says the NODA program currently has about 25 volunteers. 

“Each one attends orientation sessions and receives

training,” Pearlman says. “The current volunteers range in age from their early

20’s to their late 70’s. The requirement for being a NODA volunteer is an

interest in being advocates for the patient. These patients are on comfort care

and our goal at St. John’s is to see they have no physical pain and to offer

compassionate care.”

Pearlman says NODA volunteers are special people and it

is not something that everybody can or should do. 

“But if it is something a person can do then it is not

only a gift to the patient it is also a gift to the volunteer,” she says.

For information about volunteering for the NODA program

of for any of the St. John’s programs, contact Grenda Pearlman at 310.829.8438

or email grenda.pearlman@stjohns.org.

Marge Gold is a NODA volunteer who provides care to

patients and who also helps the Director with program organization and


Gold says she has learned many things from being a NODA


“NODA has taught me to just be there in whatever way the

patient needs, to suspend judgment, and to come with no expectations about the

patient or the family,” she says. “I hope I always say and do whatever is

needed and am of help. It’s a profound experience and I’m grateful to be a


Like other volunteers for NODA, Nancy Cronig has a long

series of accomplished volunteer work on her resume. 

Currently she is an actor in the Moot Court program at

UCLA, is part of the St. John’s Surgery Waiting Room Volunteer program, and a

NODA volunteer.

Recounting her NODA experiences, Cronig says she came to

realize that even in a coma a person can hear her. 

“I play music and sing to them,” Cronig says. “I hold

their hand. I wipe their brow and put ointment on their lips and do other

things to make them comfortable. I advocate for them when they can’t advocate

for themselves.”

She says when she got called for her first patient she

didn’t know what to expect. 

“I sat with her and held her hand and played music for

her,” she says. “I was so thankful to be able to pass on some of the help I

have gotten in my life to someone who was in need. It is a healing experience.”

From the beginning of St. John’s to now much has changed

in health care. 

The work of being a physician and the physician’s

commitment to each patient is a value we agree to as a nation. One we all want

to protect. 

However the delivery of health care, cost of health

care, and availability of health care remains in the public, the political, and

the economic spotlight. 

In addition medical technology has made great

advancements bringing great benefits but adding to the ethical questions that

have always been part of medicine. 

A discussion of the forces shaping our national health

care is, and needs to be, ongoing. Throughout what can sometimes be a contentious debate, individual people

across the nation are using their time to volunteer in ways that support the

commitment to each individual patient.   

NODA is one part of the answer to the ethical questions

of our time.

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