By Marty Russell

Daily Journal

There are about 2,100 homebound patients served by North Mississippi Medical Center's 13 Home Health Agency offices and a lucky few are being helped by a handful of volunteers who donate their time in a program unique in Mississippi and the nation.

The Home Health Agency volunteer program, which puts volunteers in the homes of patients who need help with everyday chores, is nearing its first anniversary and, although the number of volunteers participating has been less than hoped, all involved consider the first year to be a success.

"I think it's been successful although I would like to see the numbers increase somewhat," said Phyllis Hunter, a registered nurse and coordinator of the program for NMMC.

While training sessions required for the program have drawn large numbers, currently fewer than 10 volunteers are active, but Hunter is confident more will join the program.

"We will see this grow as more and more patients get older and more get out of the hospital sooner," Hunter predicted. "There's going to be a tremendous need for volunteers."

A training session for potential volunteers is scheduled from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. Feb. 24 in Tupelo and another session is planned in Starkville in March.

"The first program, we had about 11 and four have been active," Hunter said. "We figure if we get a fourth of them we're doing good. The last one we had was with a youth group in New Albany. Fourteen went through and we have two ready to see patients."

Volunteers range in age from teen-agers to retired people. The only requirements are that they possess their own means of transportation and undergo the six-hour training program. Each must also first make rounds with the nurse assigned to their patient before going solo.

First of its kind

While NMMC's Hospice Program for terminally ill patients has used volunteers for about a decade, the home health volunteer program is a new concept matching volunteers with those homebound patients recovering from a hospital stay.

NMMC's program is the first of its kind in the state and is believed to be only the second such program in the nation.

"There's one back east somewhere that I think is combined with a hospice program," Hunter said.

Volunteers in the NMMC program are matched with patients on the recommendation of the home health nurse assigned to that patient or the patient's physician. The volunteers may be called upon to read to the patient or write letters for them, prepare meals, shop, do light housework, relieve family members or just provide emotional support.

The purpose of the visits is to help the patient and the professional staff attending to that patient. Volunteers also serve as a link between the patient and their care givers and the professional staff. For that reason, volunteers are encouraged to keep in touch with their assigned patient even after the patient is discharged from home health care and let the professional staff know if a relapse occurs or a condition worsens.

Volunteer Sarah Dye of Saltillo, a retired nurse from Memphis who moved to the area a few years ago, calls Rosamunde Blaylock of Belden once a week even though Blaylock no longer receives home health care for surgery she underwent recently.

"It's a weekly visit I look forward to," said Blaylock, who lives alone and has vision problems.

Dye said she decided to volunteer in order to stay active but said she found other rewards as well.

"It's just the satisfaction of making some people happy," Dye said. "All we do is laugh and talk. Mrs. Blaylock would never let me do anything for her."

Blaylock doesn't see it that way.

"If I need something I can call on Sarah," she said. "She's such a sweet lady and I don't know what I would have done without her. For someone to come and talk to you is really, really nice. She's a shot in the arm."

Even those who have care givers at home benefit from the volunteers, Hunter said, because it gives those care givers a break.

"There was one woman who told us you just don't know what it means to be able to get out and get your hair done," Hunter said of the spouse of one patient.

The volunteers spend an average of about two hours a week with a patient and the hours are flexible. However, because there aren't enough volunteers to go around, a large part of the demand goes unmet.

"We get requests very, very frequently," Hunter said, estimating that about three new requests for volunteer help come in each week. "If I had 20 (volunteers) I could put them all to work tomorrow."

To register for the upcoming volunteer training sessions, call Hunter at 791-2385.

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