June 15, 2008

Hospital Volunteers Spread Hope Amid the Hurt

By Morgan Day, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio

Jun. 15--While visiting a relative in Riverside Methodist Hospital last year, Rebecca Johnson saw a heartbroken man and woman pacing a hallway.

Then she saw the same couple in the lobby listening to a volunteer play piano. They looked content, perhaps forgetting their troubles for at least that moment.

That's when Johnson, who recently retired from the music department at Capital University, decided that she had something to offer Riverside.

"I said, 'Maybe I can play and share that kind of joy or contentment or relief from pain,' " said Johnson, who began taking turns at the same piano two weeks ago.

She joins about 1,200 other volunteers at Riverside and about 35,000 others who give their time at hospitals statewide, feeding newborns, delivering flowers, taking phone calls and talking with patients, families and visitors.

"Volunteers fill crucial roles for hospitals because a lot of time, they aren't directly involved in patient care but are very much appreciated," said Tiffany Himmelreich, spokeswoman for the Ohio Hospital Association.

And there are savings. Riverside, for example, estimates that volunteers saved the hospital $3.1 million in services during its last fiscal year.

Then there is reputation, and how that can increase a hospital's patient base.

In 2002, Gerry O'Shaughnessy, manager of volunteer services at Riverside, was taking a tray of cookies through the hospital when a visitor jokingly asked whether they were for him.

She said "yes" and gave him some. That led to the cookie cart, which carries free cookies, coffee and tea through the hospital three times a day.

The Cleveland Clinic and Johns Hopkins in Baltimore are among the hospitals that have sent visitors to learn more about the cart and Riverside's volunteer program.

Elizabeth Stein, director of Cleveland Clinic's volunteer services, shadowed Riverside cookie-cart volunteers last year. The hospital adopted the idea.

"Volunteerism has such a common theme, especially hospital volunteerism," Stein said. "I found it's very productive to share things with other hospitals. If it works at one hospital, chances are it'll work at another."

Ohio State University Medical Center has 1,900 volunteers. Jane Federer, associate director of volunteer services there, said a successful program provides meaningful work for volunteers.

"We take in volunteers because of their interest, their enthusiasm, the care they bring for helping folks," she said. "They bring something we couldn't hire."

O'Shaughnessy said so many teenagers want to volunteer at Riverside that the hospital capped the number at about 240. About 80 teens are on a waiting list.

Esther Crabtree and Dolores Kennard spend their time at Riverside in a room filled with sewing machines, creating aprons, bibs and burp cloths.

The women, both 77 and longtime veterans of the volunteer sewing guild, said there is no place they would rather be.

"It just gives us a good feeling to know we accomplished this today and we helped all these people," Crabtree said.

Younger volunteers sometimes return years later as nurses, doctors or administrators, O'Shaughnessy said.

Jacob Strange, a 21-year-old biology major at Ohio State, said he wanted to get off-campus experience and signed up to volunteer at Riverside.

On his first day last week, Strange helped discharge patients. He said he plans to help on the neurology floor.

"I don't even know why I waited so long," said Strange, who plans to go to medical school.

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