Learning to Love

Reflections of an Inmate Volunteer
  By Dawn Sheppard
My name is Dawn Sheppard and I have been at Carswell for almost four years. I’ve been incarcerated for a little over seven. Being here today has been a really neat experience. This is a privilege, definitely a privilege for me. We have a truly wonderful warden and I’m real grateful that Warden Bogen allowed me this opportunity today.I didn’t really get involved in the hospice program by choice. When it started, I was involved with other programming in the prison. Melissa Johnson, the head social worker in the hospice program, called me and said that I would make a great hospice volunteer. At first I answered, “Naw, not me!” I knew what hospice was about. But I said I would think about it, mainly because I live with a terminal illness myself: I’m HIV positive. I didn’t think that I would be ready to deal with something like a hospice program. But I prayed about it because I do have a very strong spiritual side. Finally I came to the conclusion that God had laid it on my heart that the hospice is where he wanted me to be. I got to sit with the first hospice patient at Carswell, also an AIDS patient. When she came in, she was in a really bad state of dementia; I think she had toxoplasmosis as well. Once they started medicating her, she really improved. One thing about the federal system I can vouch for is that they have very good medical care. With all the attention, love, and care that we gave her, and the encouragement well, she’s home now and doing well. She moved out of the hospice and about a year later went home.

I have experienced the death of three ladies, sitting with them and being with them. As hospice volunteers, we try to help them live until they die. There’s not a whole lot we can do, being where we are, but we do our best. We don’t have a specific hospice unit, but we do have an inpatient medical floor with about twenty-six beds. Some of the rooms are for two persons, some are for four, and there are also single rooms.When a person becomes a hospice patient, they put her in a little separate room by herself. We have televisions in all our patients’ rooms, and microwaves and ice machines on the unit. We try to make the patients as comfortable as possible. Some of the hospice patients are able to get up and get in wheelchairs, and we can take them outside or to the library, which is on the medical floor. A lot of patients like to read the Bible; they really focus on the spiritual aspect of things. This really helps me a lot, because I was so afraid of death for so long. I was afraid of dying because I didn’t know what it would be like. So talking about these things with patients is helpful.

One patient, who I think was about seventy-four years old, was a very spiritual person. I took her to church a lot. She also liked to play cards, so I would come and play cards with her and try to do things to make her as happy as possible. She took sick all at once; one day she was up talking and laughing with us and the next day she was dying. I sat with her that night; it was one of the neatest things I have ever experienced. About one in the morning, I was reading her the Twenty-third Psalm. I didn’t know that it was her favorite psalm. I was holding her hand and talking into her ear, and all of a sudden I heard this loud thunder booming across the sky. She just opened her eyes, closed them again, and took her last breath. It was so neat because the day before she was talking about how good God is and hoping that when she is ready to go she doesn’t suffer. And she didn’t seem to suffer at all; she just went.

After she took her last breath, I went to get the nurse–that’s what we are trained to do–and the nurse got the house physician. They do allow you a few minutes with the patient if that’s what you’d like. Lightning just flashed across the sky for about five minutes afterwards. It makes it so much easier on me when I know that somebody is going home to be with God.

The women at Carswell are from all over the country. I’m from New York, and there’s no way I’m going to get visitors on a regular basis. Our hospice patients might be from California or Florida–so far away that most of their families can’t afford to come to visit them. Some can afford it; they might have money to stay in the hotel and come back the next day. When they are allowed to come, they have special visiting hours. But a lot of families can’t afford it, and that’s where the inmate population fills in. The hospice team has worked with a lot more inmates than the eight hospice patients. We’ve done a lot of hospice-like interventions with them, while they remain free of being labeled as hospice patients.

One of the neatest parts of this program is that it not only helps the patients, but it strengthens me also. Being a hospice volunteer brought out qualities that I never thought I had. I grew up in a lot of dysfunction. I didn’t know what it was to love and to be loved. This program has really taught me how to be a companion to someone; it’s taught me great communication skills; most of all it’s taught me compassion and how to care for people. Those are things that I thought I would never have. It’s been a very rewarding part of my sentence. By the grace of God I’ve got five-and-a-half months to go; this is something I want to continue to do out there. This is a volunteer program. I don’t get paid for it. I still have my seven-hour-a-day job as the chapel clerk. I’m also involved in other programming and activities, so my day is pretty full. But the volunteer program helps me and it helps my time. I’m just grateful I can help someone today. This is something I thought I would never do in life–to be able to touch a dead person, or just be with somebody like that. Today I know that I don’t have to be afraid of the patients and I don’t have to be afraid of death.

I’m really grateful that we can have this program at Carswell, because we do have a lot of deaths here and there are a lot of ill women. It can get really draining emotionally. But there’s a lot of support afterwards. If I need to talk about something, or if I need to cry, all of the staff are there. And being a hospice volunteer helps me, but it also helps the staff continue to look out and to do their job and to have us there helping out. It’s been a really neat experience for me. I can’t talk too much longer because I have to get back before the count. I’m really grateful that I had the opportunity to come here today.

  • Dawn Sheppard was the only inmate attending the Prison Hospice Forum (November 13, 1998), held in conjunction with the National Hospice Organization’s Annual Symposium and Exhibition in Dallas. She spoke about her experience as an inmate volunteer in the prison hospice program at the Federal Medical Center-Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas.


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