When one thinks of hospital volunteers, the image of candy stripers — mainly women wearing red and white striped clothing — may come to mind.
Few would think of Eugene resident Nancy Garrett, sitting next to a young mother with a brain tumor, holding her hand as she breathes her last breath.
“You have to have an extra measure of grace and love to sit by the bedside of a total stranger and just hold their hand,” Garrett said.
Ken Casey, a Florence resident, gets up at 4 a.m. to drive a van full of veterans to Portland or Roseburg to keep their doctor’s appointments at Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals in each of those cities.
Working as a hospital volunteer has changed dramatically from the 1940s, when candy stripers first started appearing at hospitals.
Volunteers help in nonmedical ways in many hospital departments by performing dozens of tasks, such as helping to transport patients in wheelchairs, making beds and organizing important documents related to patient care.
The work of volunteers saves the hospitals and VA clinic millions of dollars a year.
But the main value of volunteers is their effect on patient well-being, which is immeasurable, hospital representatives say.
“My father is the bravest man I know,” said James Shulfer, volunteer services director at the VA clinic. “He’s walked away from plane crashes and everything else, but he doesn’t like going to the doctor. He just loathes it. But when he has gone into the VA and was greeted by a volunteer, it’s just made that experience so much better.”
More than 1,200 people — many of them retired — work as volunteers in Lane County’s five hospitals and the Veterans Affairs health care center in Eugene.
Casey, a Vietnam War vet and volunteer driver for Disabled American Veterans, said that he doesn’t know any drivers who are younger than 60. “You have to be retired to do this job,” he said. “A working guy can’t do it.”
According to The Independent Sector, a Washington, D.C.-based coalition of nonprofits, foundations and corporations, an hour of volunteer time in Oregon is worth about $24.
Vancouver-based PeaceHealth has four hospitals in Lane County, including PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend in Springfield.
PeaceHealth Volunteer Services Coordinator Sharri Da Silva didn’t have an exact number for recent years, but she said that in 2013, volunteers contributed 119,627 hours to the firm’s hospitals in Lane County.
In its volunteer services report for 2013, PeaceHealth said the unpaid labor saved its Lane County hospitals $2.6 million.
Da Silva said that PeaceHealth’s volunteer opportunities have expanded in recent years, so it’s likely the value of volunteers to PeaceHealth and its patients has increased.
Volunteers at the Eugene VA medical center have worked 8,233 hours since October 2016, Shulfer said.
McKenzie-Willamette Medical Center’s volunteer coordinator Julie Cavinee said volunteers have worked about 5,300 hours so far this year.
A vital link for veterans
Casey said that the transportation provided by Disabled American Veterans is the reason that many veterans can make it to their doctor’s appointments at all. He uses a van provided by the national nonprofit organization to pick up vets in Florence, Cottage Grove and Eugene.
“There’s a lot of people where I don’t know what they’d do if they didn’t have a way to get there,” Casey said.
Casey, 75, has driven for Disabled American Veterans for 12 years. He said being a volunteer is rewarding.
“It’s a needed thing,” Casey said. “It gives my wife a day off from me, and I enjoy doing it. Plus, I haven’t had one person get out of the van and not thank me.”
At Peacehealth’s RiverBend hospital, Jim Aasum, 87, said he has pushed wheelchairs with women in labor to delivery rooms on several occasions.
“They come in a little late, you know,” Aasum said. “And I say, ‘You’re gonna be OK,.’ They’re going ‘Ahh, ahh,’ and I’ve got them in the wheelchair and I take them right up into delivery.”
PeaceHealth offers over 60 different volunteer opportunities. The musically inclined can play piano in RiverBend’s large lobby. Volunteers with a knack for handcrafting can knit caps for babies in the neonatal intensive care unit or make quilts for patients.
Those, like Garrett, who have an admirable capacity for compassion, can sit with dying patients who don’t have loved ones and comfort them in their final moments.
“You just have to have a heart for whatever area you volunteer for,” said Garrett, who has sat with more than 50 dying people in Eugene and Springfield through PeaceHealth’s No One Dies Alone program. “You just have to have a passion for it.”
Aasum, a retired chiropractor and former lobbyist, has pushed hundreds of patients in wheelchairs during his three years as a RiverBend volunteer.
He works four-hour shifts on Thursdays. During his shift, he clips a large portable telephone to his belt. When it rings, he answers the phone with, “This is awesome.”
On a recent day, Aasum was summoned to pick up a patient on the cardiac floor.
“Room 5401?” He said. “OK, we’ll get ’em!”
“Talking with people, I like to encourage them,” Aasum said. “I say, ‘you’re going to be so much better now!’ And they go, ‘I am?’ I go, ‘yes, you are.’ Think positive.”
Aasum is part of the largest demographic of hospital volunteers in Lane County: retired men and women looking for ways to give back.
Da Silva said that around 40 percent of PeaceHealth volunteers are retired.
At the Eugene VA health center, 83 percent of volunteers are older than 50, and most McKenzie-Willamette Medical Center volunteers are retired.
Need for volunteers varies
PeaceHealth attracts many volunteers, partly because it has so many different opportunities to serve, Da Silva said.
“We never have to go out and beat the drums for volunteers,” she said. “I don’t have to go recruit. I don’t have to advertise or anything.”
Da Silva said that sometimes those interested in volunteering with certain programs at PeaceHealth, including No One Dies Alone, have to be put on a waiting list.
But at the VA, Shulfer said he is eager to get more volunteer drivers for the Disabled American Veterans shuttle program in Eugene.
The health center recently acquired a van to transport veterans from their houses in the Eugene-Springfield area to the medical clinic on Chad Drive in northeast Eugene.
The van has not yet been used for the shuttle program because it needs drivers, Shulfer said.
“It’s the hardest assignment to fill because not a lot of people like to drive, and I think when most people think about volunteering at the VA, they’re thinking about sitting with a veteran and talking,” he said.
Yet Casey said that he’s enjoyed many conversations and heard plenty of stories while driving vets to and from Florence.
On a trip transporting three blind veterans, he recalled listening to their vivid descriptions of World War II.
“They were all in Germany around the same time, and they were telling these stories,” Casey said. “It was incredible. All the places they had been, and the stuff they saw.”
Lane County’s hospital volunteers aren’t paid, but they often get free food and drink in cafeterias for their work.
Aasum said schmoozing with cafeteria workers usually gets him an extra cup of coffee. “They see my volunteer badge, and they usually just hand stuff over,” he said.
The main reward for volunteers comes from helping others, Shulfer said.
“Yes, you’re helping enrich the lives of our veterans,” he said. “But, I dare say, you’re also enriching your own life and experiencing history firsthand.”
During his 12 years as a volunteer driver for Disabled American Veterans, Casey has driven 2,044 hours, 53,200 miles and transported 1,192 veterans.
Casey said he will soon stop driving for the group. He is proud of his work, summed up in a letter he received in July from the organization.
“The letter said, ‘This is something to be proud of. Thank you, Ken, for all that you’ve done for the vets,’ ” Casey said. “And that came from the Volunteer Services National Headquarters. Everybody appreciates what you’re doing, and that’s a big pat on the back. If they didn’t, it wouldn’t be worth it.”
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“Everybody appreciates what you’re doing, and that’s a big pat on the back.”
Volunteer driver for Disabled American Veterans