She sits at the bedside of patients, holding their hands, as they take their last breaths of life, "so they go peacefully and so they're not alone," she said.
Phan, 72, is one of 24 "vigil volunteers" for Hospice & Home Care of Snohomish County. These volunteers go to the homes or the hospital bedsides of people who have a life-ending illness. In some cases they are days away from death.
Sometimes, the volunteers assist the patient. Sometimes, they help family members facing the loss of their loved one.
"At the end of life, there's a lot of emotion," said Sandy Powers, the hospice service's volunteer services supervisor.
It takes a special person to be able to simply be quietly attentive to the needs of a patient or family members at what can be stressful, uncomfortable times, she said.
Powers, who previously served as a volunteer herself, said she was sent to the home of a woman who didn't want to be alone as her husband, to whom she had been married more than 50 years, lay dying.
The woman asked for Powers to sit with her and have coffee as she reminisced about the many years the couple had spent together.
"That's what she needed to share," Powers said. "That's what Van provides for these families, too."
Hospice volunteers who go to the hospital bedsides of dying patients must received two months of training. This includes 40 hours of classroom work, 20 hours of homework and eight hours of special training to prepare volunteers for assisting dying patients and their families.
"I was thinking it is as difficult as if I had a job," Phan said.
Phan became a hospice volunteer in December 2006. In the years since then, she has donated 2,319 hours, and driven 5,392 miles serving hospice patients and their families.
Phan immigrated to America following the Vietnam War. Her husband had been killed in 1975, leaving her with the task of raising five children as a single mom.
"I lost everything," she said.
She and her children were held in a detention camp for seven years.
Phan, a devoted Catholic, said she asked God to bring her and her children to freedom in America.
She obtained a nursing degree from Everett Community College, while raising her children.
"I came here with nothing," she said. "Now, I have a car, house and shelter. This is more than enough."
In fact, when people offer to buy her gifts for Christmas or for her birthday, she said she tells them to write her a check instead. She uses the money to help pay for a second volunteer activity, providing medical care to the poor on international mission trips.
This year, she hopes to travel to Cambodia, and perhaps Uganda.
The goal of her hospice work is to make patients comfortable, instead of restless, agitated and in pain, she said.
"Sometimes I read to them. Sometimes they want to talk. Sometimes they want music," Phan said.
Powers said Phan is always willing to do whatever the organization needs.
"If we call and say we have a (vigil) shift from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m., she's always willing to go in the middle of the night," Powers said.
"Van is exceptional."
Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486; firstname.lastname@example.org.
How to help
To find out about volunteer opportunities at Hospice & Home Care of Snohomish County, call 425-261-4815.
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