Lynne Calkins remembers one call from a man whose terminally-ill father wanted to die – beginning a story that led to a movie. Last Flight Home, an acclaimed documentary released last fall, was described in one review as “boundlessly humane.” It’s a phrase that applies to the work of every first line phone volunteer who takes an incoming call to our number.
First line phone volunteers, those who handle such calls and emails, are the invaluable gatekeepers to EOLCCA services. Calls come in – from the very ill, the troubled, the desperate, the anguished, and the curious – at all hours. They are responded to often within a very short time but always (when it’s after business hours) by the next business day.
Last year a total of 743 calls and emails were received and handled; an average of two inquiries per day or approximately 62 per month. The busiest months were January, August and October. A ‘staff’ of six trained first line volunteers divides up response duties, which means an average of ten new calls per week are handled by each volunteer. Calkins, the first line trainer, regularly reviews incoming messages on weekends and holidays too, in case an immediate response is necessary. “But thankfully, we have had no emergencies,” she says.
Each inquiry is unique
While few calls evolve into anything as dramatic as a documentary film, each is unique in its own way. Most commonly, that first call is simply “Can you help?” – but often it comes from someone in distress who heard about EOLCCA from a provider or after an online search. It’s the first line phone volunteer’s job to pick up on the caller’s needs as quickly as possible. It can be a big challenge to know what questions to ask and to listen carefully, but once front line training is complete each volunteer is prepared to meet it.
“I was worried that I might not be able to answer a question, or that there would be awkwardness on my part or the caller’s,” says first line phone volunteer Judith Bishop. “But that never happened. People have very straightforward questions, and are happy to talk. It’s just a matter of letting them know I’m available.”
First line phone volunteers complete a two-week training on answering calls/emails and keeping records, in addition to the standard EOLCCA client volunteer training program. (Information is always confidential, but carefully recorded.) Calkins, a founding board member of EOLCCA, developed the training and frequently handles the inquiries herself.
One recent day Calkins received a call from a woman with a terminal diagnosis who wanted to use the California End of Life Option Act. The caller was clear about her condition and her choice, but had no idea what to do, where to turn, what to ask her caregivers, how medical aid in dying works. Calkins was able to answer the caller’s basic questions and assure her that we would help her through her journey. During their conversation they talked about where the caller lived and Calkins realized an EOLCCA client volunteer lived nearby. Within hours she had made notes about the conversation, contacted the client volunteer manager and begun a connection between the two for more follow up support with a home visit if requested by the new client.
Services to all clients are free
While many calls are notable for efficient outcomes, others are more lighthearted. Bishop recalls talking with one clearly agitated woman with multiple questions and saying she’d get back to her first thing in the morning with more answers. “Oh no, dear,” said the now calmer caller, “I’m not a morning person.” Another caller, asking about costs of life-ending medications and medical care, commented, “You mean, I’ve got to pay to die?”
EOLCCA’s services, at least – including 24-hour access to our phone line – are always free.
A lifelong newspaper and magazine writer, EOLCCA Board Member Fran Moreland Johns has published fiction, nonfiction, and several books. Her focus on end-of-life issues includes many volunteer years, numerous articles and one book, Dying Unafraid. She holds a BA in Art from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, and currently blogs at Medium.com and franjohns.net. Her short story collection, Marshallville Stories, was released in April 2022.
EOLCCA supports a strong team of experienced volunteers throughout the state, ready to help anyone, anywhere in California free of charge with information and support regarding all end-of-life planning and choices, including aid in dying through the California End of Life Option Act. You can find comprehensive information on our user-friendly website. To support our work, or request an educational presentation, please visit ways to help. Thank you.
Thanks, Fran. A very nice, informational article. And, of course, pleasing to me to see your references to Judith.
I would be interested in volunteering as a first line phone volunteer. How do I find more information? Thank you.
Thank you Jaya for your interest! We are not actively recruiting additional volunteers at this time. However, I encourage you to complete a Client Volunteer Application so we can reach out to you for future possibilities.
It is absolutely important to return a call as soon as possible and I honor your system of training volunteers. I have been a volunteer in Oregon with all our DWD groups since Summer of 1998 when I moved to Oregon from Dallas Texas and leaving my hospice nursing career. This is truly amazingly spiritual work for me and I am so grateful for how California has done it better than our first few states even dreamed of doing this precious service. Congratulations.
Thank you Derianna for your thoughtful words and for your own work!