Skip To Content Skip To Menu Skip To Footer

The Art of Dying

Student Story

by Fabiola Cineas '12

Student volunteers at hospice.

Hospice patient Elizabeth Crosby (left) shares with Shelly Hwang '12 funny and inspiring stories about her missionary travels to 70 countries.

Helping someone live comfortably while dying is not the average student activity. However, volunteering at hospice is at the top of the to-do list for Shelly Hwang ’12.

Hwang, who grew up near Washington, D.C., had always been intrigued by the concept of hospice and was familiar with its treatment philosophy, which aims to relieve and prevent any pain that terminally ill patients may be facing. A Google search during her first semester at Dickinson led Hwang to two hospice facilities in Carlisle—Claremont Nursing & Rehab Center and Heartland Hospice.

By the end of her first semester, she had been trained to care for, comfort and interact with hospice patients at both facilities. Volunteering at hospice also connected with her academic interests, which included a First-Year Seminar, Science and Religion, and courses in biomedical ethics and philosophy. According to Hwang, hospice is where she can “realize all of my passions in one place—science, philosophy, community service and even music.”

While volunteering at hospice, Hwang realized that something was missing; the environment was depressing and lacked engaging activities. After forming relationships with patients, ages 40 to 90, she discovered there was a soprano who had lost the ability to sing and a pianist (the eldest of all of the patients) who tapped on his keyboard every day.

Hwang also realized that many patients hummed to themselves as a means of consolation. With all of this evidence, Hwang presented her case for a hospice music program. The initial hospice concert in 2009 with Dickinson student musicians was a stirring success. “After the first concert there was an enormous response,” she says. Hwang describes the audience as a “sea of smiling, laughing faces looking up from their wheelchairs.

“During the concerts their eyes light up, they laugh, sing along and cry. The young performers bring vitality and life to hospice. When mingling after the concerts the residents always ask when the performers are coming back,” she explains. In the fall, Hwang was busy planning seven to eight concerts, her usual slate for a year.

“Shelly has truly brought everyone together through this music therapy,” says Pauline Goulet, coordinator of volunteers for the hospices where Hwang helps out. “She has revolutionized the idea of service, because the concerts serve as a tool for entertainment and also bring peace. Her volunteer work has expanded to touch not just patients but also their families and friends. Shelly’s compassion and great interpersonal skills bring light and hope to hospice.”

Her hospice work wasn’t the first situation in which Hwang formed close relationships with individuals with critical illnesses or disabilities. She’s been a mentor for Dickinson’s community-service organization Special Friends since her first year and was a coordinator during her sophomore year.

As a mentor, she formed a strong friendship with 23-year-old Kelly, who has severe autism and cerebral palsy. She says she will never forget the day that Kelly acknowledged her as a friend.

“Volunteering a couple of hours a week to help our mentees improve their social skills, develop confidence and let them know they are still a part of society is worth it,” Hwang says.

Hwang’s academic successes match the triumphs she’s experienced in her community-service endeavors. A biochemistry & molecular-biology major, Hwang spent the summer after her first year in a National Institutes of Health (NIH) lab that specializes in kidney and electrolyte metabolism. After conducting research for 12 weeks, Hwang co-authored a paper that was published in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology and published another in the American Journal of Physiology–Renal Physiology.

The next summer brought Hwang to NIH’s National Cancer Institute for a 14-week internship in the Laboratory of Cancer Biology and Genetics. She researched tumor formation and skin-cancer development and reported her findings in The American Journal of Pathology. “Dickinson especially strengthened my lab skills and gave me confidence,” she explains.

Senior year began with another honor. During Convocation, Hwang was named Senior Sophister, an award given to a senior with an exceptional academic record, and was one of two students awarded the Howard Lane Rubendall Senior Scholarship, given to students with the highest-combined levels of leadership, scholarship and service.

As she moves toward graduation, Hwang continues to be the youngest volunteer at the hospices she serves. She’s been accepted to the University of Maryland School of Medicine and is deciding between women’s health and geriatrics as a specialty.

“My interests in philosophy, ethics, community service and music will fall into place somehow,” Hwang says. “I look forward to continuing to draw on all of my various experiences and further developing the passions that I have realized during my time at Dickinson, through a career in medicine and throughout my life as an engaged member of the community.”

Published January 2, 2012