DENNIS GARVIN: The Hospital Volunteer

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Dennis Garvin

He is an old guy, below average height and above average weight. The parking lot for the hospital volunteers is in the toughest place: too close to the hospital for the shuttle bus, but a long walk for someone with a limp that reflects some type of end stage arthritis. Still, he shows up every day that he is needed.
He would seem eminently unnoticeable. Except to the people he greets. He works at the Hello desk for surgical check-in. Because it is a charity hospital, a disproportionate percentage of the patients are poor. Also, their baseline health may be lower than average, increasing their surgical risk. What they have in common with all preop patients in every hospital is fear.
The volunteer is the first person who these patients encounter. He is calm, kind, competent, unhurried, and solicitous. When their fear manifests as ill temper, he is unruffled. When they mask their fear with false gaiety or feigned nonchalance, he renders a smile that manages to be both kind and just a little conspiratorial.
It is said that a person never gets a second chance to make a first impression. The same observation pertains to hospitals. In the preop area, the nurses and clinicians are kind, but professional. The volunteer is not only the first face seen by the patient; his is the only nonclinical face they will see. We take the volunteer for granted, but all of our clinical jobs are made easier by the gentle compassion with which the volunteer ‘premedicates’ our patients.
There is no training by which we could impart such skills to a volunteer. It must be a spiritual gift. ‘Volunteer’ means he doesn’t get paid. Never knowing if his day will feature hostility from a patient or indifference from a staffer, still he comes. He brings his unsung gifts and I suspect that, were he to be asked why he volunteers, his answer would be: ‘because I can’t Not do it.’
I have been a doctor for 46 years and been the beneficiary of many volunteers. The hospitals give recognition suppers and appreciation awards to these fine people. It is, however, the patients and the staff whose lives and work are made easier by these benevolent souls.
Most of our volunteers are retirees, elderly. Therefore, in my 46 years of surgical practice, I imagine that many of the volunteers who helped me and my patients are now passed on, resting in the arms of a Loving God, the same God who gave them the spiritual gift that actuated their volunteering; the same Loving God who is probably more grateful for their volunteering than I have been.
I write this both in appreciation and in atonement for my previous inattention. Thank you, volunteers.