Sometimes it’s not easy to turn from the dark world of political angst these days, to thinking and writing about good people. Last night was such a night … I was struggling as “breaking news” updates kept flashing across my screen. But, just as I was about to throw in the towel and give up, a man named Kees Veldboer flitted ever so briefly across my radar. I decided to dig just a little deeper and … I was so glad I did, for suddenly the world of Washington was the furthest thing from my mind, and this man, the wonderful things he and his organization have done, was all that mattered. A word of caution … make sure you have a box of tissues handy.
Kees Veldboer is a retired paramedic in the Netherlands. In November 2006 he was moving a terminally ill patient, Mario Stefanutto, from one hospital to another. But just after they put him on the stretcher, they were told there would be a delay – the receiving hospital wasn’t ready. Stefanutto had no desire to get back in the bed where he had spent the past three months, so Veldboer asked if there was anywhere he would like to go.
The retired seaman asked if they could take him to the Vlaardingen canal, so he could be by the water and say a final goodbye to Rotterdam harbour. It was a sunny day, and they stayed on the dockside for nearly an hour.
“Tears of joy ran over his face. When I asked him: ‘Would you like to have the opportunity to sail again?’ he said it would be impossible because he lay on a stretcher.”
Veldboer was determined to make this man’s last wish come true. He asked his boss if he could borrow an ambulance on his day off, recruited the help of a colleague and contacted a firm that does boat tours around Rotterdam harbour – they were all happy to help, and the following Friday, to Stefanutto’s astonishment, the ambulance driver turned up at his hospital bedside to take him sailing.Thus began Stichting Ambulance Wens (Ambulance Wish Foundation), started a year later by Veldboer and his wife, Ineke, at their kitchen table. And now, he’s helped more than 10,000 people live out their final wishes – and has taken them everywhere from art exhibitions, to watching their favourite football team one last time, and even took one terminally ill teen from his home in the Netherlands to Switzerland to see mountains, that he had never seen before. Says Veldboer …
“Every day we help six terminally ill people. It’s so nice to see them happy. For us it’s something easy to do but for them it’s something so special. We have driven people for miles, even to other countries, and taken them to some really amazing places. But for me, the most beautiful thing I think we have done for a woman who was in a hospital for months and after being given a terminal diagnosis, she was taken into a hospice. All she wanted was to see her home for one last time. We took her there and she was just standing there for an hour, looking around. Two days later, she died. It was such a beautiful wish, so simple yet so meaningful for her.”
Another quite popular wish is for patients to see their favourite piece of art for one last time and Mr Veldboer delivered. He arranged many trips to the museum, after the opening hours so people could admire the art. One recent one was at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, where people were able to see Rembrandt’s exhibition.
Mr Veldboer also arranged for two football fans to watch a game of their beloved Ajax one more time.
A terminally-ill grandmother was able to meet her newborn grandchild …In another case the Stichting Ambulance Wens took a man to his last car show in Rosmalen, while two immobile ladies visited the Sand Stories in Elburg for the last time.
“Our youngest patient was 10 months old, a twin. She was in a children’s hospice and had never been home – her parents wanted to sit on the couch with her just one time. And our oldest patient was 101 – she wanted to ride a horse one last time. We lifted her on to the horse with the help of a truck, and later we moved her to a horse-drawn carriage – she was waving at everyone like royalty. That was a good wish.”
One story made headlines in 2014, when one of Stichting Ambulance Wens crews took Mario, a 54-year-old man with learning difficulties, to say a final goodbye to his colleagues at Rotterdam’s Diergaarde Blijdorp Zoo, where he had worked for 25 years. At the end of his shift as a maintenance man he used to always visit the animals, and they took him on his rounds one last time. When they reached the giraffe enclosure they were invited in, and it was then that one of the more curious giraffes came over and gave Mario a lick on the face. He was too ill to speak, but his face lit up.
And one of the most recent ones, the one that caught my eye tonight, was the elderly couple who just wanted to see snow one last time.
“There was one lady who wanted to go to her grandson’s wedding. The hospice had told her ‘No’, but she was desperate, so in the end they called us. We took her there and she loved it. On the way home she turned to us and said, ‘You don’t realize how important this was to me.’ She died that same night.”
Says volunteer Mirjam Lok, a 25-year-old nurse …
“It’s intense, but that’s why it’s interesting. You don’t know who you’ll meet when you walk through the door, and at the end of the day you have fulfilled their last wish, you close the door and you think – that was good. It has taught me that you can find happiness in little things, and that’s what you should aim for – rather than longing for what you don’t have.”
Stichting Ambulance Wens offers something that the patient’s relatives cannot do themselves. In most cases patients are immobile and bound to a stretcher so they wouldn’t be able to move in a car or another vehicle. In addition, terminally-ill patients are in need of 24 hour medical care and that’s why the organization consists of 270 volunteers who are all medically trained, in case of an emergency.
Following the huge success of his venture, Veldboer has helped to set up similar ambulance services abroad, first in Israel – after taking a Jewish woman to Jerusalem, where she wanted to die – then in Belgium, Germany and Sweden.
A practical, no-nonsense man, he admits that setting up the foundation has given him confidence.
“I used to think I didn’t amount to much, but then I discovered my ideas aren’t that bad after all. I’ve learned that if you follow your heart and do things your own way, people will support you. I’m just a very ordinary Dutch guy who does what he likes best, and my hobby is helping others.”
I thought I would not be able to give you a link to their website, for it is in German, and as far as I know only three of my readers, Michael, Bee and Jeannie, speak German, but I had a thought and went in search of an English version, and sure enough … I found it! Stichting Ambulance Wens
I am in awe of Kees and Ineke, and also of those 270 volunteers who give their time to making last wishes come true. These are truly good people … the sort the world needs more of.