Published on January 13, 2012

Hospice Volunteers Bring Friendship To Patients At End Of Life

A special kind of volunteerism

Gene Swarts’ heart no longer has the pumping power to endure much activity. These days, the 85-year-old lives life mostly from his living room, where he reads from the hundreds of books he owns.

He offers up facts he has accumulated from years of reading as he weaves a conversation. He calls his home a museum, filled with “more books than a library,” auto-racing memorabilia, 478 music CDs, and his favorite conversation piece -- a beer-tab tree he began making from a broken pole lamp in 1968.

End-stage congestive heart failure will take him, he knows; he has been in the care of Genesis Hospice for more than a year. He continues, however, to embrace life from his East Moline house of 52 years and find wonder in all there is to know.

That zest for life at the end of life sums up why Genesis Hospice volunteer Dan Wessel of Moline considers himself lucky to visit Swarts each week. It’s also why he has been a hospice volunteer for the past 20 years

Every Wednesday for two hours, the two men have a standing visit. They became fast friends over a mutual love for sports.

“I always say ‘Gene has a Doctorate in Life.’ I think I get more out of these visits than he does,” Wessel, 74, says. “As we sit and talk, Gene’s heart condition doesn’t play a part. He’s a very interesting person. Gene’s a history buff. He has taught me a lot about race cars. He used to take a lot of photos. He knows I’m a Cubs fan, and he found me a photo of a tombstone that had a big Cubs emblem on it.”

Swarts, who lives alone, retired from International Harvester in East Moline. He has always enjoyed reading autobiographies and books about history and geography. He looks forward to visits from Wessel.

Volunteers are an integral part of a Genesis Hospice care team that includes nurses, social workers, chaplains, home health aides and bereavement coordinators.

“They are dears, every single one of them. Genesis Hospice has a beautiful program as far as I’m concerned,” Swarts says. “I’ve been in hospice for a year and three months, and my heart just won’t stop. I have a fear of hurting, but they assure me there is medicine for the pain once I get to that point.”

Meanwhile, the Wednesday conversations and occasional outings with Wessel help break up the monotony. Recently the two went to Hardees in East Moline, where Swartz showed Wessel old photos of local sports teams that hang from the walls.

“The days get long when you’re just sitting and reading,” Swarts says. “I wake up at 6:30 in the morning and go to bed at 10:30 at night, so it’s a nice break to have Dan come and talk to me. He’s a good listener.”

20 years of volunteering

When Dan Wessel retired in 1992, he decided he didn’t want to “retire from life.” He needed to become involved. So when he saw a notice in his church bulletin, he made the call and underwent training to become a hospice volunteer.

Twenty years later, he estimates he has helped more than 100 patients enrich their lives at the end of life’s journey.

“Once I started to volunteer, I remembered the song ‘Little Things Mean A Lot’ from the ‘50s. That really hit true. I’ve met a lot of people in hospice over the years and they all had something that meant a lot to them or they enjoyed. I’ve always tried to zero in on that to find a connection.”

One patient had worked in a cemetery and enjoyed taking drives there. Another patient missed playing golf, and with the assistance of Wessel and a physical therapist, was able to hit plastic golf balls in his yard again.

A father dying of cancer talked with Wessel, a Cubs fan, about wanting to take his kids to Chicago’s Wrigley Field.

“I told him, ‘If you can’t do it, I will.’ He died before baseball season started, but I took his two kids to Wrigley Field,” says Wessel, whose wife, Jan, is a hospice volunteer as well. “The little things mean a lot, and I enjoy being part of them.”

Lori Bruning coordinates an estimated 125 volunteers for Genesis Hospice. People often ask her if hospice volunteerism is “depressing.” She answers that hospice patients teach volunteers about courage and faith. In turn, volunteers help patients and families find peace at the end of life. “Our volunteers say over and over, ‘I get a lot more out of this than I give,’” Bruning says. “What patients in hospice need is a friend. At a time when other people may be backing away because they are dying, they need folks who are willing to step forward and join them in that journey. Our volunteer training helps prepare people for that.”

Be a hospice volunteer

People who want to volunteer for Genesis Hospice can call Lori Bruning at (563) 421-5113. Volunteers are needed for all hours of the day and will visit Genesis hospice patients in their homes or at the Clarissa C. Cook Hospice House in Bettendorf. To learn more about Genesis Hospice services, call (563) 421-HOME or go to

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