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Life – and death – sheds new meaning on graduation for one civically engaged student

Abston Crossland

Disbelief quickly turned to a sense of urgency, and there was no question Logan Abston would visit his dying friend on the eve of graduating from Salt Lake Community College. As a volunteer with Inspiration Hospice, he was informed of her imminent death by a text message. She would become Abston’s second end-of-life experience as a hospice volunteer.

“I was in disbelief, the day before graduation. I thought, ‘This can’t be happening.’” She was dying of cancer, had no family in town, and Abston during the last eight months had been her only company outside of the staff at her long-term care facility in Salt Lake City.

He had started donating his time as a hospice volunteer while at SLCC as part of the College’s Civically Engaged Scholars program. He thought the program would someday look good on his resume. But his experiences with Inspiration Hospice and other volunteer opportunities through SLCC exceeded his expectations, changed who he was and altered his academic and career aspirations.

Starting Behind

Abston, 30, grew up in California. There were stretches when his family was homeless. “It was pretty messed up, but we got through it,” he said. “It showed me that struggle is important.” Living in Fresno, he had tested out of high school at 16 and eventually took some general education classes at a community college. But when a family member died, he put college on hold and went to work full time.

Throughout his 20s, Abston gained experience as a patient technician and a birth doula, a non-medical person who helps a birth mother with physical, emotional and informational support before, during and after giving birth. He also developed an interest in midwifery, moving to Utah when his pregnant sister asked if he would help with the birth.

New Horizons

Once he took root in Utah, Abston decided he wanted to become a certified nurse midwife and women’s health practitioner, and earn a bachelor’s degree. He enrolled at SLCC, and found Sean Crossland, community partnerships coordinator through the College’s Thayne Center, which connects students, staff and faculty with volunteer opportunities. “Sean is an inspiration because he lives a life of inspiration, and he actually cares,” Abston said. He took Crossland’s Civically Engaged Leader class, and Crossland also encouraged Abston to join Phi Theta Kappa, which recognizes and encourages “scholarly academic excellence among two-year college students.” Abston was PTK’s chapter president for two semesters.

“Logan’s passion and enthusiasm to help make positive changes in the community are evident after one interaction with him,” Crossland said. “I really can’t say enough good things about him.”

A Life of Service

Because of his involvement with Crossland and the Thayne Center, Abston found a golden opportunity to volunteer with the Maliheh Free Clinic in Salt Lake City. Maliheh provides free medical care to low-income and uninsured clients. “It is beyond anything else I’ve ever experienced, and it opened my eyes to see that I wasn’t just a person talking the talk or just saying volunteering is great. I was really, truly part of change, and I found it was what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

While working in patient care at Maliheh and with the birthing process as a doula, Abston began to wonder about the dynamic between entering and leaving the world. In both cases, people are screaming or crying, stoic, having trouble breathing, afraid, spiritual – the emotions and physical responses, he noted, run the gamut.

In August 2014, he started with Inspiration Hospice, where he learned about its 11th Hour program that places volunteers with families and patients when someone appears to be within 48 hours of passing away. After his first experience with 11th Hour, Abston pondered his choices as a student at a community college, how he initially was just trying to get a leg up on his career by being involved in a civic program, and that he was in fact fortunate to be part of such a powerful experience, to be a stranger invited into a sacred space at an emotional time. “It definitely registered with me that this is a big deal,” he said. His next 11th Hour request would come the night before graduating from SLCC.

A Dying Friend

After receiving the text message about his friend, he knew his “shift” began at 10 p.m. The woman he’d been visiting had been moved to a different room. “We had become very close,” he said. It was a bit shocking to see her for the first time that night. She was no longer on oxygen. Her hair was a mess. Abston didn’t have a comb or brush. He used his fingers to gently work out the tangles. He kept talking to her, even though she was unresponsive. “I’m glad that I’m here for you,” Abston told her, with no one else in the room. He brought Neil Gaiman’s collection of short fiction “Trigger Warning” to read to his friend. He kept a hand on her arm, checking the temperature of her skin and just letting her know that he was there.

As the minutes ticked by, Abston said what he needed to say before his friend passed. “I told her that I always liked her nose and that I was glad we had gotten to know each other, and that I thought she was a really great person,” he said. Only 45 minutes had passed when his friend appeared to look up and brought her arms toward her chest. “I put my hand on her shoulder and said, ‘It’s okay. Everything’s fine.’” And, alone with his friend, he watched her let out one last breath. He stayed with her for a while longer, did what is required of hospice volunteers and drove back to his apartment in Salt Lake City.

SLCC Graduation

The next day, Abston was beaming, dressed in a cap and gown, walking across the stage at the Maverik Center in West Valley City with hundreds of other graduates. Somehow, the day seemed a little different than what he had expected. “It felt more important,” Abston said. “I was so glad that I had been able to be there for her.”