December 10, 2019

Listener, advocate for the dying

Getting old, as Bette Davis famously said, is not for sissies. And developing a terminal illness, as Davis later learned, is no picnic either. Yet while most of us fear sickness, aging and the end of life, hospice volunteer Michael Curtis finds solace and purpose — pleasure, even — in being with the elderly as they face death.

Curtis, 62, has been volunteering for a dozen years with Skirball Hospice in Encino, a program of the Los Angeles Jewish Home. He brings to his hospice work skills honed over many years spent helping people through difficult times — starting with his 28 years at Rancho San Antonio Boys Home, a residential rehabilitation facility for adolescent boys who have been in and out of foster care. While working at Rancho, Curtis became a licensed massage therapist and volunteered with AIDS patients through The Heart Touch Project, a nonprofit that delivers compassionate and healing touch to the ill. He has volunteered for Chernobyl Children International, several times traveling to Chernobyl to help children who still suffer the ongoing effects of the 1986 nuclear disaster. And in 2008, he became an instructor certified by the International Association of Infant Massage; he currently makes his living training others in massage techniques for use with medically fragile infants, including those born premature or drug-exposed.

As a Skirball Hospice volunteer, Curtis is part of a team that can include a doctor, nurse, social worker, home health aide, therapist, counselor and dietitian. Volunteer coordinator Lee Rothman said she asks each volunteer to commit one hour a week to a patient, yet Curtis “will visit every day if he has the time.” But it’s not just the amount of time he puts in that makes him unique, she says: “Because of his training, and just who he is, he brings a sensitivity and maturity to working with patients that other volunteers don’t have.”

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