Herb Rathsack: Helping people is second nature to Gaithersburg volunteerGazette.Net: Focal Point
As a volunteer for Hospice Caring, Inc.
, Herb Rathsack
of Gaithersburg helps families cope with life-threatening illness.
by by Ellyn WexlerStaff Writer
own self, Herb Rathsack
"I enjoy fixing things and helping people.Those are basic to my nature," says the longtime Gaithersburg resident who has served as a volunteer for Hospice Caring, Inc.
After retiring from a 36-year career with IBM
as a manager in software development and technical education, Rathsack
recalls "half-heartedly looking for employment."During this time, he
read an article in The Gazette
about the Gaithersburg-based nonprofit organization that helps people deal with life-threatening illnesses.Intrigued, Rathsack
interviewed, then signed up for Hospice Caring's
"The idea appealed to me because of my basic inner nature.I want to make things right.Without getting mushy about it, I feel compelled to try to take away the things that make people hurt or at least make them feel better," he
altruistic bent is not unusual.
"I'm at the stage of life when you give things back.A lot of people do," he
says, explaining that such urges -- "very globally you can call it teaching" -- may be expressed in looking for ways to help others or even grandparenting. He
feels that Hospice Caring's
"fairly thorough training" along with 25 years as a manager gave him the interpersonal skills he
relies on to be effective in helping families through the most difficult times of their lives.
During the sessions, Rathsack
says, "you get a little insight into the things you might run into in family situations.It keeps you from being thrown and checks you out to see if you can function with people who are severely hurting and very vulnerable."
The training also acquaints volunteers with the resources available for families dealing with this kind of crisis.What Rathsack
tells them, he
says, is always a "judgement call.Each case is different.Some people are in denial about what is happening.
There are a few things about which Rathsack
is more aggressive.
"I push saying good-bye, ask if you are talking to the people you care about," he
also will address making sure the patient has a will and the family has thought about funeral plans.
"I give them leads, but the rest is up to the people," he
The level of communication with the patient varies.
"I've spent a lot of time talking with patients, primarily about spiritual things, religion, God, things I care a lot about.I've done a lot of reading, studying and thinking," he
has learned from these conversations.
"Everybody looks at it differently.You find commonality but also new insights.I think the Hindu idea that there are infinite paths to God is a profound and basic point of view," he
says the absence of verbal communication that characterized his
first case -- a 92-year-old South Carolina woman dying in her
daughter's Bethesda home -- was more powerful than any conversation he
"Two or three afternoons a week, this wonderful woman and I would hold hands.She
almost never said anything, but we communicated through our hands.She
was something else," he
says, still in awe.
more often deals principally with the patient, sometimes the family is his
emphasizes that the patient is always receiving good care when his
attention is on family members.For example, he
recalls spending almost all his
time with a woman who came home to be with her
dying 95-year-old father in his
150-year-old decaying farmhouse.Not only did Rathsack
sort out medical bills and other paperwork, but also he
did a good amount of home repair.Again, in the case of a middle-aged woman who was completely dependent on her
husband, the victim of a sudden, aggressive and deadly cancer, Rathsack's prime concern was helping her
"get on" with her
life.This kind of situation, he
says, can "lock people up."
Rathsack's own battle with cancer three years ago "took me out of action for a full year.I've never gone back to the intense patient load.I didn't feel ready to spend a lot of time with other sick people," he
has no permanent cases now.
"I punch in like a consultant.I'll take someone to the doctor, give a second opinion in a special case.Sometimes I'll come in to a training session as someone who's been there," he
says. "Herb is always available when a family is in crisis and has discontinued whatever he is doing to go immediately to the family requesting help," says Kathy M. Dietsch, Hospice Caring's Director of Family Services.
realized that upgrading our computer would cost more than we could afford, he
offered to donate his
time to make us Y2K compliant.Herb has been in the office daily for 4-1/2 months," Lisa McKillop, Hospice Caring's Executive Director says.
Under normal circumstances, Rathsack
works 20 to 25 hours a week for Hospice Caring
"During the computer thing, I thought I had a real job again," he
says, adding that he
plans to take on cases "once I get this computer thing nailed down to where I can walk away."
The benefits, Rathsack
says, are "the classic ones for people who help other people.You get a lot back from this.It's God's stuff.You meet wonderful people, learn very interesting things and somehow it warms your heart."
To nominate an outstanding community volunteer for the Gazette's 40 Who Care program, please call Features Editor Ellyn Wexler, 301-670-2045.