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January 8, 2008

A Success Story Worth Duplicating

No One Need Die Alone

Ed Iwata, a member of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Anchorage, marked his 60th birthday with eight different celebrations.

He considers himself very much alive. When the AIDS crisis began in the 1980s, Iwata began to think about death and why people, including him, were so afraid of it.

He said AIDS sufferers were "treated like the lepers of Christ's time," which made him wonder how he could comfort them.

At the time, he lived in the Washington area and faced his fears by getting involved in AIDS education.

Now retired and living in Alaska with his wife, he has become involved in another ministry to the dying -- participating in No One Dies Alone, a national program with a local chapter in Anchorage sponsored by Providence Alaska Medical Center.

The program ensures that no one at Providence's four facilities dies without someone at their bedside.

For Iwata, a volunteer with the organization since it began in Anchorage in 2006, being present to death is being present to the sacred.

He volunteers for the hard-to-fill hours -- the midnight shift. He has been called to several "activations," which is how the organization describes the call to a deathbed, and was present for only two deaths in his first year with No One Dies Alone.

Both times, he said he was struck by how much human touch calmed the dying person. One man kept raising his hand as Iwata softly recited the rosary. He gently took the man's hand. Soon, Iwata realized that the man, whose hand he still held, had quietly passed away.

Iwata told the Catholic Anchor, archdiocesan newspaper of Anchorage, that serving the dying has led him deeper into the mystery of Christ.

Death, he said, must be like falling into the greatest unconditional love you can imagine.

"Think about a time when you felt love, or in love. The feeling consumes you and you're floating on a cloud. Then double that and you're bursting. Multiply it by 10 times and you can't contain it. Multiply it infinitely -- that's God," he said.

Iwata said that must be what dying people experience.

It also means Iwata doesn't leave a deathbed with sadness, but with peace.

"Sometimes when I leave someone, I'll tell them, 'If you feel this great warmth, see this great light, embrace it,'" he said.

The No One Dies Alone program begins an activation when the staff believes a person is within 72 hours of death, said Kathy Archey, local coordinator.

The program is a ministry that grew out of personal sorrow. The nurse who founded it in Oregon had seen someone on her shift die alone.

Archey, who helped bring the program to Anchorage, didn't make it to Texas in time for her own mother's death.

People die alone for many reasons, Archey said. Some, like her mother, face death much more quickly than a geographically distant family can anticipate. Alaskans, especially those in the bush, experience this. "Others have lost all ties with family or friends," said Archey, and still others may have few or frail family members who need help ensuring someone's presence 24 hours a day.

The Alaska program has about 50 volunteers whom Archey described as its "heart and soul."

It serves three to five dying patients a month in all four facilities. About two-thirds of the volunteers come from the busy ranks of Providence's own staff.

"There's wonderful enthusiasm for this program at Providence," said Archey.

She described Iwata as "truly compassionate and dedicated."

"He's been there from the beginning," she added. "If he's needed, he'll come early, and if no one can replace him, he'll stay late."

Iwata said being present to the dying is a privilege.

"The thought that hits me is, 'I will be with you in your greatest time of need,'" he said.