Our First Line Phone Volunteers

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.

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“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.

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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 Storieswas 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.

Last Flight Home

“It was like light from a lighthouse,” says David Timoner of the call he got from End of Life Choices California (EOLCCA) when he and his family were facing the toughest time of their lives.

“The wisdom we got from those final days we will carry with us forever.”

LFH Oscar shortlist pic

David’s 92-year-old father Eli was in the hospital. He had reached a point at which advanced COPD, CHF, and other health issues had become intractable and meant he would have to transfer to a care facility. But Eli knew he wanted to die at home surrounded by those he loved, and he asked about medical aid in dying. His family understood and supported his decision but didn’t know where to turn for help. Vaguely aware of a California law, they still had no idea what to do next.

“The day is a blur,” David says. “I think I googled something like ‘How to end your life legally . . .’ and EOLCCA popped up right on top. I called the number, left a message, and had a call back within the hour.” Lynne, the volunteer at the other end of the phone, was everything David needed at that moment: “Calm, empathetic, and with the answers to all of our questions. Lynne explained how the California law works and reviewed the eligibility requirements.” These, in brief, include the requirement that the patient must be diagnosed as terminally ill, with a six month or less prognosis by two doctors, must make the request himself, be able to self-ingest the medications, and be of sound mind. “Lynne also recommended that my father consider enrolling in hospice care,” David says. She was able to recommend two hospices in our area that she knew had doctors who participate in medical aid in dying. We chose one and brought Dad home.”
Ondi Timoner, an award winning documentary filmmaker, decided to record those days during the then 15-day waiting period mandated after Eli first requested aid in dying medication from the hospice doctor, until he could receive the prescription. She initially intended just to have a family remembrance. After all was over, however, she realized she had the makings of something important.

Ondi’s remarkable film, Last Flight Home, tells the full story. In the ensuing weeks, the Timoner family – Eli and his wife Lisa, their children David, Ondi and Rachel, their grandchildren and friends–would spend invaluable time at home together celebrating Eli’s unique life’s journey. The profound, intimate, loving farewell afforded Eli and his family by California’s medical aid in dying law, is the outcome we at EOLCCA wish for anyone who reaches out to us for similar help and information. That this Southern California family’s experience would be recorded by daughter Ondi and edited into a powerful documentary now being released to widespread acclaim, is a visual testament to the value of medical aid in dying.

At a screening in New York, daughter Rachel told a New York Times interviewer, “And then there is the idea that this film could change laws.” Many of us with EOLCCA worked hard to get the California law passed, and we continue to support expanding the law throughout the U.S. To have had a part in helping Eli Timoner and his family gain peace at his life’s end, and to know that they now join the fight for everyone to be able to make such a choice, is doubly gratifying for EOLCCA.

California is one of a small number of states fortunate to have a law which enables its residents to access this compassionate end-of-life option for the terminally ill. But, from call after call we receive every day, it’s clear that few terminally-ill Californians are even aware of the law, or know enough about it to even begin the process of requesting medical aid in dying from their physician.

Last Flight Home is a film we hope will receive all the top accolades in the film industry for its many-layered and beautiful story. The story behind the film has been well documented in the New York Times. It is one we urge our readers to see as soon as possible and then recommend to friends and family everywhere.

‘Last Flight Home’ is a film we urge our readers to see and recommend to friends and family everywhere.

EOLCCA Lynne with 'Last Flight Home' Director Ondi Timoner and family

From Left to Right: Lynne Calkins with Ondi Timoner, Rachel Timoner, and Lisa Timoner at a recent screening

Asked for advice she might now pass on, Ondi says simply, “Be with your loved ones now. Don’t wait for them to be dying. But there is an incredible quality of life when a person is transitioning. The wisdom we got from those final days we will carry with us forever.”
Perhaps the most profound lesson Eli’s family learned was the simplest. It has to do with summing up life itself – as we humans do so often by looking at accomplishments and honors and all those treasures we accumulate. But no, says Ondi Timoner as she reflects on her family’s journey and the creating of Last Flight Home.

“Look at it as a way to measure our lives,” she says. “Measure our lives with love.”

We hope Last Flight Home will reach the countless families and individuals in situations similar to that of Eli and his family, so that others may learn about the California law in time to make a difference in their own end of life if facing a terminal illness. Our EOLCCA volunteers are always ready to help. Call us at 760-636-8009 or visit our website.

Click here for more information about the film director, Ondi Timoner, and Interloper Films.

Click here to stream it on Paramount+ 

Paramount+ logo

 

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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.

The Day I Die: The untold story of assisted dying in America

Anita Hannig’s The Day I Die: The untold story of assisted dying in America has taken a well-deserved place as the definitive book on medical aid in dying. Want information on how it works? On the history of the assisted dying movement? On the future of legal death with dignity laws? Hannig covers it all, in a book that reads like a personal, informal conversation with the author.

In a recent conversation…

Hannig spoke recently with this reporter about The Day I Die – which is filled with stories of her own experience as a hospice volunteer, and accompanying other volunteers and professionals – and about the work we do at End of Life Choices California (EOLCCA).

“Volunteers are the lifeblood of assisted dying,” Hannig says. “They provide firstline support for families and patients, and it’s hard to overestimate the role they play. In my research, I witnessed how much families and their loved ones leaned on volunteers for their technical expertise but also – and equally importantly – for their human touch and care. In a time of great vulnerability and uncertainty, volunteers help patients navigate the ins and outs of qualifying for the law and accompanying them each step of the way afterward. The emotional labor volunteers put into their work is nothing short of admirable. I have profound respect for their work.”

Hannig, an associate professor of anthropology at Brandeis University, invested five years of study and hands-on involvement in writing The Day I Die. Along the way she accumulated a wealth of stories – poignant, humorous, heart-tugging, enlightening – that she shares in the book.

The Day I Die ,by Anita Hannig

A book to give to those you love

Looking ahead, Hannig says she wants to be optimistic about the future of the law, “but in the current political (or perhaps judicial) climate I am not sure such optimism is warranted. In the long term, however, I do think that we as a society will gradually move into a direction of granting more rights and freedoms to the dying. My hope is that assisted dying will eventually become legal in all fifty states.”

For now, Hannig says “there are still some misunderstandings about all the different steps someone needs to complete to qualify for assisted dying. Most people think it’s more straightforward than it actually is. Or they wait too long to start the process. Many are still under the impression that there’s a “magic pill,” when in reality the protocol of the medications is quite nuanced and complex. My book talks about the fascinating pharmacology of dying in more detail.”

The Day I Die, in fact, talks about the fascinating work of assisted dying in all its important, often difficult, always rewarding details. It’s a book to read, to keep and to give to those you love. 

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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 with information and support regarding all end-of-life planning and choices, including aid in dying through the California End of Life Option Act.
Please find comprehensive information on our user-friendly website at www.endoflifechoicesca.org.
To support our work, please visit www.endoflifechoicesca.org/ways-to-help/.  Thank you.

Zoom In-Service for Seva Hospice

Topics:   The California End of Life Option Act and medical aid in dying, and all end of life options.

Seva Hospice service area includes the communities in Stanislaus, San Joaquin, Merced, Tulare, and Kings Counties in California.
For more information, please contact Jarah King, RN, Jarah@sevahospice.com

End of Life Choices California Speakers:

Lynne Calkins
Judith Bishop
Rita Casey
Susan Gess
Fran Mooreland Johns