NEW SERIES: HOSPICE AND PALLIATIVE CARE IN EASTERN AND CENTRAL EUROPE …
Serbia’s first palliative care social worker and volunteers coordinator, Mijodrag Bogićević, is Patient Care Manager at the Center for Palliative Care and Palliative Medicine “BELhospice” and a member of the European Association for Palliative Care (EAPC) Task Force on Volunteering in Hospice and Palliative Care. Here, Mijodrag writes about the beginnings of hospice and palliative care volunteering in Serbia.
BELhospice was established in 2004 in Belgrade – the first specialised charity in Serbia providing free palliative homecare services, education and training.The need for palliative care in Serbia is great: 30,000 new cancer patients each year, 16,000 patients and their families in need of palliative care, 5,209 deaths from cancer each year in our capital city, Belgrade.
I joined BELhospicein 2012 as a social worker, tasked to launcha volunteer service and develop a psycho-social support programmefor cancer patients and family members. These activities were part of a project aimed at developinga multidisciplinary approach.By the summer of 2012, we had formed a multidisciplinary team, which included trained volunteers
Initially, my work was met with scepticism and pessimism that volunteering in palliative care would be almost impossible in Serbia. Hospice and palliative care was (and still is) little known and an unpopular area for professionals. Most volunteers in Serbia are young people, who mostly want to have fun and meet new people through volunteering so working with terminally ill cancer patients was at first unappealing. For most adults, the priority is to solve the problems of existing – they spend a lot of time at work – and there’s a general feeling that life is full of suffering – so why face more suffering through volunteering?
How volunteering began …
In June 2012, in cooperation with Albatros, a not-for-profit organisation in Lyon, France, BELhospice organised the first training for hospice and palliative care volunteers in Serbia. Seventeen participants took part but only four people decided to volunteer. I was lucky because these four people were great: young, and full of enthusiasm and ideas. Together, we developed a volunteer programme and registered it with the Ministry of Social Welfare. A month later, I wrote the first manual for hospice and palliative care volunteers in Serbia and soon after BELhospice volunteers began to visit patients in their homes. The first visits went really well, our patients were satisfied and volunteers were full of positive impressions. This gave us the confidence to continue. As the service developed, certain issues started to arise including boundaries, length of visits, clarification of roles and activities of volunteers, reporting methods – a clear sign that the volunteer service was truly alive.
Six years later …
Today, it would be very hard to imagine BELhospice without volunteers – they are an integral part of all our activities. Together with a small team of professionals, volunteers have been working to improve the quality of life of oncology patients in Belgrade. Most of our volunteers are students between 22 to 26 years of age. They volunteer to acquire new knowledge and skills, meet people and build greater chances for employment while some want to help because of personal experiences with terminal illness and death in the family. But not all BELhospice volunteers are young – though traditionally it was unusual for older people to be volunteers, the concept is slowly developing.
While most patients are between 50 to 60 years old, we care increasingly for younger patients from the age of 16. For many of our patients, especially those under 20, our volunteers are the most important part of the multidisciplinary team. Younger patients often feel socially isolated, particularly as the disease progresses and schoolfriends stop visiting them.
So far, BELhospice has held 12 volunteer training programmes; 200 people successfully completed them, most of whom are now involved in various activities. In 2016 and 2017, volunteers and the new volunteer coordinator worked together to collate ‘Volunteer Stories’ for publication as a book. (Read the stories in Serbian here). This year, our goal is to prepare volunteer activities in the first Serbian Day Hospice.
Professionally, I am fulfilled when reading volunteers’ stories – they describe how much they have benefited from volunteering and how it has helped their personal development.
To quote from the letter of volunteer Vera Perunicic:
«Since I became a BELhospice volunteer, I observe the world with more passion, I forgive more easily, I appreciate every moment … I have learned to say “no” without feeling guilty, I have more empathy and awareness about the world we live in. … Spending time to help others is a very humbling experience for me and no matter how much you invest, it is nothing compared to what you gain in return.»
I am also thankful to all our volunteers for contributing their time and efforts, as only together we can further develop palliative care in Serbia and ensure that all patients live their lives with dignity until the very end.
- Contact Mijodrag Bogićević by email.
- View the film BELhospice 2015. (Serbian with English subtitles).
- EAPC Task Force on Volunteering in Hospice and Palliative Care.
- Read more about Palliative Care in Eastern and Central Europe and Volunteering in Palliative Care on the EAPC Blog.
Please advocate for the support, recognition, promotion and development of volunteering in hospice and palliative care by signing the EAPC Madrid Charter on Volunteering in Hospice and Palliative Care.