Michelle Tatlock Michelle Tatlock

Program Ensures No One Dies Alone at UNM Hospital

The University of New Mexico Hospital intensive care units see 65-70 deaths monthly. Sometimes, people will pass with no one beside them at the end of their lives. Now, medical students and UNM Health System employees are volunteering their time through a formal program aimed at having someone present at bedside for those patients.  

No One Dies Alone (NODA) is a national movement that began in 2001 in Eugene, Ore., and has spread to hospitals, nursing homes and hospices across the country, according to Michelle Tatlock, director of UNM Hospital Pastoral Services.

“The desire of people to be a part of this program is so great,” Tatlock says. “We now have 82 Health System employees and 60 medical students who are participating in the program. We are keeping the volunteer system internal, so everyone already has the appropriate badges to access any medical unit. They’ve also been trained in hospital procedures and privacy laws.” 

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates 18 million men and women aged 65 and older move through their life alone, either never married, divorced or newly widowed. Current estimates also show more than three-quarters of Americans will die either in a hospital bed or a long-term care facility, rather than at home.  

But those numbers don’t reflect the multitude of circumstances that can lead to a patient being at risk of dying alone. Some potential factors may include family rifts and cultural avoidance of the dying. Especially in cases of people traveling through New Mexico, a support system just may not be available after an accident, Tatlock says.

“Then there is there is the truck driver from Philadelphia does not know he has heart problems until he hits Albuquerque’s altitude and ends up in our ICU,” she says. “There are the homeless, as well as car accident victims who have been separated from their IDs. In cases like that, it can take time to find their families and for them to travel here.” 

A group text is sent out when the NODA program is activated and volunteers can then go into an electronic signup sheet. 


“It is gratifying,” Tatlock says. “The volunteers can make it fit their schedule and often we will have 24 hours scheduled in under 40 minutes.” 


To date, there have been seven vigils and some 193 volunteer hours provided at bedside. As the system smooths out, Tatlock expects those numbers to triple. 

The program also supports the ICU staff, she adds. 

“Our staff works so hard and they are oftentimes distraught when they discover that one of their patients is dying alone,” Tatlock says. “We are finding the program supports the nurses and their own grief of not being at bedside at the time. It reassures them that their patients are not being neglected when they are not there.”

When possible, the volunteers try to incorporate music and information that they know a patient finds meaningful. If is not possible to find that information, Tatlock says, much of the volunteer training stresses just being at bedside is enough.  

“There is a dialogue that goes on, even in silence,” she says.  

Categories: Top Stories, UNM Hospitals, UNM Health System

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