Team takes compassion to disaster site

When last week’s dam breach swept away two homes containing seven individuals Kaua’i Hospice beepers set volunteers to action.

The “Beeper Team” as they are known consists of one Kauai Hospice staff member, Gina Kaulukukui, and six volunteers: Sharron Edwards, Vicki Requilman, Betty Moore, Melinda Barnes, Mary Devine and Sherry Olkonen.

The team shares a beeper among the members passing it along each week where one individual will be on call to respond to a developing sudden-death situation. “We are dispatched by the Kauai Fire Department and KPD for emergency bereavement support whenever there is a sudden or accidental death on the island,” said hospice spokesperson Liana Soong.

Last Tuesday Kauai Hospice got the call. “I received the call at 8 a.m. and it was pretty intense,” said Kaulukukui. “It was intense because this was bigger and because of the impact it has had on our community and there were seven missing people.”

Sherry Olkonen was one of four hospice volunteers called out to the scene that Tuesday morning. “We knew there was the potential for fatalities, but it wasn’t certain, so we spent part of that day providing water and food for the rescuers,” Olkonen said.

Hospice workers focused on taking care of the “nuts and bolts” of the situation, said Kaulukukui. “When the people came up missing we had to find out: ‘Who are these people? Are they locals? Are they visitors? Does the family live on the island or the Mainland? In this instance we found out there was a couple with family coming to the island for a wedding.”

The hospice workers called Sue Kanoho at the Kauai Visitors Bureau and asked for help when they found out about the wedding. “With guests arriving from the Mainland we had to figure out how to head them off and offer support,” said Kaulukukui. “Some of them probably did not even know of the tragedy yet when they got off the plane.”

Another of the Beeper Team members, Sharron Edwards, got the call a little before 9 a.m. that Tuesday morning and after a day at the scene of the tragedy found herself at the Lihu’e Airport around 10 that night. “I met people at the airport to offer support when they arrived,” said Edwards. “Our focus was being able to provide information to the families as quickly as we received it.”

That was one of the support structures the hospice team gave the grieving families, a buffer between them and the media and nearby residents and friends. “You never know how grief will surface,” said Kaulukukui. “That’s why we keep the family members away from the staging area and in a hotel room or a home.”

“In limbo is a very difficult place to be,” she said. “That is a space that may not have a lot of room for friends and neighbors trying to offer support.”

The Beeper Team is hand picked by Kauai Hospice. “They go through a 36-hour patient care course, and another 24-hour bereavement support course,” said Soong, “And they are volunteers.”

The hospice volunteers are trained to offer the support needed in situations just like the one unfolding on the North Shore. “They pride themselves on boundless compassion,” said Soong.

With the broad scope of the disaster last week hospice workers found themselves in other roles as well, besides that of offering bereavement support. “We were able to supply some of the basics to the rescue workers and county workers like sandwiches or towels to dry off,” said Edwards.

“Those guys are the ones in the field for hours on end doing their search work in the elements and they are the ones who need attention as well,” said Kaulukukui. “The ones that are working in search and recovery have spouses and family members and it pulls at their heart strings too.”

Edwards said that in a situation like that at Wailapa Stream you “do whatever is necessary in the moment.”

Edwards said her main role was being a conduit of information. “When they find someone we want to know that right away so we can call the family and let them know before they see it on the news,” Edwards said. “I have mostly been a base of information.”

Kaulukukui has been working more directly with the family members. Yesterday she spent time with Lisa Fehring. “The quiet times are when we feel we are doing the best job, because we are just holding the hands of the family members who are waiting for their loved ones to be found,” said Soong.

Kaulukukui never ceases to be amazed by the powerful resilience of the human spirit in bereavement situations, she said. “It’s a powerful thing to experience, the way that hope shifts and changes from ‘Let them find my loved one alive’ to ‘Let them find my family member so I can move forward with the grieving and acceptance process,'” Kaulukukui said. “And then when they are found the way a family member can endure being called in to identify their loved one.”

The hospice mission is to be there and offer background support as family members move through these processes at disasters, accidents and tragedies.

“I can’t imagine not being a part of this,” Edwards said. “Of course I have shed tears, but this is my passion. I would hope that if I had a family member in the world somewhere and a tragedy befell them a team would be there to step in and say ‘We will help you.'”

That is what Kaua’i Hospice does here every time a sudden death occurs somewhere on the island and the little beeping starts to emit from the members’ beltline.

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