Independence Inc. peer volunteers like Anne Haehl help people with serious illnesses cope with dire times.
Doctors told Rebecca Richardson two and a half years ago that she had six months to live. Richardson, whose illness was diagnosed as a progressively fatal degenerative nerve condition in 1982, soon felt abandoned by many friends who couldn't bear the difficulty of coping with her illness.
Four months passed before Richardson met Anne Haehl, a volunteer peer counselor with Independence, Inc. Haehl befriended Richardson and offered vital resources, problem solving and overall psychological support. Though the pair hit it off those first two months together, Richardson was afraid that Haehl would leave her as many others had done.
"I just can't deal with that," she told Haehl tearfully. Haehl reassured and told her friend softly, "I will stay as long as you live."
The conversation solidified their relationship and changed both of their lives.
"That gave us a bedrock understanding that she doesn't have to act unnatural to keep me around," Haehl said.
While Richardson's health and eyesight have deteriorated this past year, she has outlived her doctors' predictions and continues to persevere daily. She credits Haehl for boosting her quality of life.
"I wish I could say how many times Anne has been a light in a very dark tunnel," said Richardson. "She has become my friend, my helper, and an all-around special person in my life. She lets me cry and laugh, no matter what the pain. Above all, she lets me know that I am not alone."
Haehl, 53, who actually first became involved in Independence, Inc. five years ago, helping with allergy/asthma support groups, just feels grateful to be helping her friend in life's most dire times.
"Sometimes, I wish I could do more," Haehl said. Her voice rose with passion and her hands raised to the heavens. "What is this? I want this woman to be better. I'd like to take her on a visit to Europe. I can't do any of that, but it makes me feel good to know that what I can do is useful."
Haehl's most useful and important role involves nonjudgmental listening. She described the time eight months ago when Richardson adopted a beautiful Australian cattle dog from the humane society. After a few months, Richardson painfully decided to return her loyal companion to the shelter because of her declining health. She called Haehl in tears and told her about the traumatic experience.
Richardson was comforted by Haehl's genuine understanding and calmed down by the end of their conversation.
"It's always sad losing a pet," Haehl said. "It was something she wanted so much. Being listened to is a healing thing. I couldn't make it OK. It was just knowing that I could respect her feelings."
As Haehl hung up the phone that evening, she wept openly herself. They were tears of compassion and love for a special person she feels so blessed to know.
"To have a friend is a great gift," Haehl said.
-- David Garfield is a free-lance writer in Lawrence. His phone number is 832-9390.