Mount Carmel hospice volunteer Mary Smith is making final moments count
Mary Smith isn’t intimidated by death. For 13 years, the Columbus native and volunteer with Mount Carmel Hospice and Palliative Care has made weekly visits to patients who, due to terminal illness, don’t have much time left.
But Smith, Columbus CEO's 2022 Healthcare Achievement Awards Volunteer of the Year, makes every minute count.
Now 71, she has spent a lifetime serving others. For 22 years, Smith worked in the intake department of the Franklin County Board of Developmental Disabilities. She first encountered hospice care when she moved to Johnstown when her two children were young.
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An elderly family friend was ill and in the process of dying in the care of Hospice of Central Ohio at Newark City Hospital, now Licking Memorial.
“They took him to a private room, where you could have family and friends be with him,” Smith says. “I thought, ‘This is the most wonderful thing.’ You're right there with the person. They're dying, but nobody has wires and machines and everything connected. You're just able to talk with them and make it a good time.”
That experience set her on her path. She supported Hospice of Central Ohio patients for five years before moving back to Franklin County, where she has volunteered at Mount Carmel Health System since 2009.
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“I love it because of the people, and I'm going to get emotional,” she says. She pauses for a sniffle. “Everyone is going to die. Some people know ahead of time that that time is coming, and if you can make that time any easier for that person, or for the caretaker, that's what I love—that they would trust me to come in and take care of them.”
Hospice at Mount Carmel plays a special role in Smith’s life since both of her parents and her stepmother received hospice care prior to passing away at the hospital. Mount Carmel Volunteer Coordinator Daniel Riquino, who nominated Smith for the award, has worked with hundreds of volunteers, but hospice, he says, requires a special kind of person.
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“You have to learn how to transform the mundane into the miraculous,” he says. “Whether it’s eye contact, holding someone’s hand or just sitting there…for someone who has varying levels of cognition or may be bed-bound…to have someone who can find joy in small things helps the patient find joy as well.”
Smith is a master of small things. Through thoughtful gestures—bringing patients pumpkins in the fall, trimming their Christmas trees, delivering homemade cards—she works to inject warmth and joy to her patients’ end-of-life experiences.
“Oftentimes, a patient’s room and bed is the extent of their world,” Riquino wrote in the nominating materials, “so these small gestures have a huge impact.”
Creativity helps, too. When one of Smith's patients had lost the ability to verbally communicate, Smith didn’t let that stop her from connecting.
“When I went to visit the patient, I looked around their room and could see certain things that had been put there—a picture, a record, or a coverlet on the bed with a certain animal on it,” she says. “I just started talking about those things—and the patient’s eyes would get big and there would be happiness in their eyes.”
The next time she visited, she brought along library books on those topics. “Each visit, we really enjoyed looking at the things I brought, or listening, and you could see that the patient really wanted to communicate, and they did, just by looking at me.”
Smith’s dedication does not stop at patients’ doors. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and in-person volunteering was on hiatus, Smith made hundreds of cloth face masks at home for Mount Carmel staff and caregivers. As soon as the volunteer program resumed, she was one of the first trained on the new safety protocols.
When a new volunteer joins, she attends the training sessions to share her knowledge and serve as a source of encouragement. And she bakes. Every new patient gets cupcakes.
For many volunteers, hospice isn’t the default choice. Collecting crayons and scissors for school-supply drives or delivering hot soup to seniors who lack transportation—these efforts feel uplifting, hopeful. Hospice closely parallels death and loss, which, to many, can seem overwhelming.
Through her own story, Smith hopes to change that perception. “It's part of life. And it's not sad,” she says. “It’s making something a little easier, maybe sometimes making someone laugh.”
Most of her patients, she says, simply need someone to talk to who’s not a medical professional or family member. Smith becomes that friend.
“When we're born, there's people all around, and everyone's there to lift you up,” she says. “And when you die, you need someone, too. If somebody can make that process a little easier, it’s a blessing.”
Virginia Brown is a freelance writer.
Volunteer, Mount Carmel Hospice and Palliative Care
Experience: Has served more than 100 hospice patients over 13 years.
Education: B.S., Elementary Education, The Ohio State University at Newark (1986)
Community Involvement: The Ohio State University Women’s Club Toymakers, which crafts stuffed animals, dolls, pillows and more for children.