Fletcher Allen Health Care doesn’t make a special effort to recruit older volunteers, according to Director of Volunteer Services Margaret Laughlin. Just because there isn’t a special effort doesn’t mean the hospital isn’t filled with volunteers of all ages. “We have 950 volunteers,” said Laughlin “and a huge number are over 50. They’re everywhere. If they are physically able to do the work, they can choose their assignment. There are over 50 different areas for volunteers and each one has its share of mature helpers.”
Dick Houghton of Colchester has been volunteering at FAHC for more than six years, dividing his time between the information desk, working as a guide and promoting the cardiac rehabilitation center. Part of Houghton’s inspiration to volunteer comes from personal experience. In December of 2005, he had bypass surgery, after which he visited the cardiac rehabilitation center, where staff taught him how to exercise properly. Often, cardiac outpatients are reluctant to use the center, so after Houghton’s successful experience, he was asked if he would counsel others on the importance of attending. He agreed, and began spending two days a week visiting cardiac patients, often as many as 20 a day. At 69, he has taken a sabbatical from his work as a cardiac counselor, believing that those whose procedures are more recent might make for better role models.
After three or four months as a counselor, Houghton realized he truly enjoyed volunteering at the hospital and offered to serve as a guide, as well. Guides help patients and visitors navigate the maze-like hospital, either by walking with them or pushing them in wheelchairs. In addition, Houghton volunteers at the information desk, providing directions for those who are able to travel through the hospital on their own. The two positions complement each other and Houghton now guides twice a week and sits at the information desk once a week. He said many visitors are amazed that the hospital provides wheelchairs and offers of assistance to visitors. One couple visiting from Massachusetts swore that if they ever needed a big procedure done, they would come to Fletcher Allen, he said.
Betsy Lawrence of Colchester has spent three years volunteering at the Taylor Family Hospitality Room and Surgical Intensive Care Unit (SICU). Three years ago, the 62-year-old former medical social worker retired for health reasons and wanted to find a way to continue being helpful. Lawrence tried a number of volunteer opportunities, but found FAHC to be a good fit. “I felt like I was using my training,” she said “and helping families and patients directly.”
Lawrence divides her time between two related facilities. The Surgical Intensive Care Unit is her “busy” assignment. Once a week, she serves as a liaison between family and staff. Since the unit is a locked facility, Lawrence’s job is to see which family members are interested in visiting patients and arranging for visitation. “Since I was comfortable with the emotional issues,” she said “it felt like a place where I could be useful. I enjoy it a lot.” In contrast, Lawrence’s work at the Taylor Room is far more relaxed. The room is a waiting area for families who want to visit the SICU and it cannot be kept open without the presence of volunteers. While her SICU work involves a lot of walking, the Taylor Room is a place where Lawrence can knit or read while still providing assistance to families. “Those two assignments are a nice mix,” she said. “One is active and intense and the other is relaxed and quiet.”
In the case of Linda Pelkey of South Hero, volunteering at the hospital is a way to give back after two family members were treated for serious medical issues. Pelkey’s son was badly injured in a military accident and her grandson was diagnosed with histiocytosis, an abnormal increase in the number of immune cells. In 2002, Pelkey retired and decided to volunteer at Fletcher Allen to give back for everything the hospital had done for her family. Now 65, she wanted to spend her retirement years being busy and being around people. When Pelkey’s son was injured, she made a promise to herself that if he survived, she would find a way to give back. “I know it sounds trite and you hear it all the time,” she said “but it’s true that you don’t forget people who were kind to you in times of trauma and you carry that with you. It’s as simple as that.”
For the last eight years, Pelkey has worked for the FAVORS program, which provides room service for patients. Patients can request reading material, snacks, games, crafts, music and other entertainment. Although the program is designed for in-patients, volunteers are also willing to go on coffee runs for out-patients. “It’s very rewarding when you see how patients react,” she said. “Sometime it’s just a smile, but other times they say ‘you’ve made my day’ and most didn’t realize the service existed. Once they find out the scope of the program, they’re amazed.”
Lawrence credited the Fletcher Allen volunteer office with being well organized and for recognizing the work of volunteers. She noted that staff members also frequently show their appreciation for the volunteers’ efforts. “The office is really good at helping people figure out what they want to do,” she said. Volunteers receive training, a thorough orientation and annual updates. “It’s very gratifying,” she said. “I would recommend it to anyone. There are times when it’s stressful and sad, but I enjoy it and it makes me feel like I’m still useful.”
Pelkey echoed Lawrence’s appreciation for the volunteer office. “They’re exceptional people,” she said “and they make it fun to go to work with their positive attitude. You don’t get paid a dime, but there are other ways that you are rewarded.”
“If you talk to the volunteers we all say the same thing,” said Houghton. “We get a lot out of this; it feels good to help people.”
Houghton has also gained a group of new friends from his volunteer work. “It really brings a lump to my throat,” he said. “Everyone has been so nice.” After retiring from IBM, Houghton spent his time kayaking and bicycling but found there was something missing. “It gives me great satisfaction to be here,” he said “and it filled a void in my life.”
This article was contributed by Phyl Newbeck.