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Taking the time to make a difference
Volunteers are a critical part of local medical facilities
By Kathleen Ostrander

St. John's Hospital and Memorial Medical Center use nearly 1,000 volunteers to help keep their institutions running.

Numbers can measure the amount of volunteers, but there is no way to quantify the outpouring of compassion and empathy that helps take the edge off of what is at the very least a stressful visit and at the worst a terrifying wait in a life-and-death situation for a loved one.

"What they add to our institution is that extra care and compassion from being an escort to someone who delivers flowers to brighten up a room.

"Our volunteers come from all walks of life," said John Budny, director of Volunteers and Community Service for Memorial Medical Center.

"We have stay-at-home moms that want to volunteer and retired CEOs. We've got retired state workers, truck drivers and mail carriers. It's their way of giving back to the community."

Memorial volunteers are called the Red Coats; and St. John's volunteers are known as the Samaritans. Volunteers are used for patient and family escorts, to transport items to the laboratory in the hospital, as sales associates in the gift shop, to staff the various waiting lounges and to function as liaisons between physicians and patients.    

Volunteers work a shift of about four or five hours - so it's an afternoon or morning, Budny said.

Seniors who leave the area for a warmer climate during the winter are replaced for those months with seniors who may belong to golf leagues and then we rotate them back in, he said.

Karen Penning, director of the Samaritans, said the hospital tries to match volunteers to their area of interest. Volunteers at both facilities give directions.

Budny said they also help keep track of families in the hospital if they leave a waiting lounge and a physician needs to find them.

"They are our way finders," he said with a laugh. "They give directions to those who lose their way in the hospital corridors."

Volunteer snap shots

Aggie Hayner worked in public relations at St. John's for 25 years. She retired and - what seemed so natural - came back as a volunteer.

Hayner, 68, said she came back to be productive and to give back.

"That's what retirement is all about," she said with a laugh.

"Taking the opportunity to now be able to give something back. That's the beauty of retirement."

She works with families who are waiting for someone in surgery. Hayner remembers when there was no waiting room and patients' families sat in the main lobby and waited.

"It's much better now in their own waiting room. It's very stressful, and there's a lot of apprehension especially if it's parents waiting for a child," she said.

"When I walk out the door after volunteering here, I feel like I have helped someone waiting to be a little bit more comfortable," she said.

Hayner also does communion ministerial work - delivering communion to Roman Catholics at the hospital.

"That gives me a chance to sit and chat sometimes. That gives a patient a warmer bit of communication," she added.

"I am blessed to be able to do this."

Paul and Irene Burnet both volunteer in separate areas, an odd partnership of life and death that takes equal measures of empathy and compassion.

Paul Burnet, 67, works with hospice patients at the hospital. Paul Burnet's dad was a client of St. John's Hospice Home Care. Paul Burnet waited a year after his father died and then started training to be a volunteer.

He started at the hospital in 2001 and Irene Burnet, 66, started in 2002. Since then, Paul Burnet has "unretired" and now also drives a school bus for special needs children.

Irene Burnet mans the parent helpline for new moms and dads. She also works with new baby wellness.

"Most of the other volunteers on the hospice unit have experience with a family member with a terminal illness and want to give back. We've never had to ask someone to come back and volunteer. We are there for the patient and also for the family. We do what we can to give the patient a better quality of life, pain free, dignity and independence."

"He's got so much compassion. He's very good at what he does," Irene Burnet said.

"She's likes people, and she's got her faith," Paul Burnet said.

Irene Burnet, who still has a soft, musical Scottish brogue although she's been in the United States since she was teen, said younger parents are often very stressed and new moms - and new dads - need to be told they can call the help line whenever and as often as they want.

Ben and Marianne Mazzola are St. John's version of George and Gracie Burns.

"Everyone tells us we keep them in a good mood," said Ben Mazzola, 79.

"There's a lot of camaraderie. There's good social aspects with being a volunteer."

Marianne Mazzola, 73, decided in 2001 she needed to do something a little bit more constructive then filling her days with lunches and shopping trips.

"I got involved in the administrative aspects at the Samaritan office, and now I'm president of the (Samaritan) board and work in the gift shop," she said.

In 1992, Ben Mazzola retired and then spent a year and a half caring for his mother-in-law when she came to live with them.

At St. John's, he's a volunteering pro in the escort area and can find his way around all the nooks and crannies of the hospital.

"He's very compassionate and caring," said Marianne Mazzola with a fond smile. "She's smart, and she's had a quite a few jobs," said Ben Mazzola in response to praise from his wife.

Tom Needham, 62, from Chatham, has been a volunteer at Memorial for about six months. He had volunteered at other hospitals and came to Memorial after he moved to this area.

"I like the social aspects, and I like helping people. I think the hardest part was learning where everything was, but you get mentoring and work with someone else before you work as an escort," Needham said.

"We also run errands for patients and the staff is needed," he added.

He also volunteers at his church and with Habitat for Humanities.

Patty Stremsterfer, 76, of Pleasant Plains, has been volunteering at Memorial for 32 years.

"I had a friend that used to tutor in pediatrics when they did that, and I was a stay-at-home mom."

She works in the cardiac care unit.

"I worked on both sides, my husband was in the unit so I can tell people what to expect. I can tell people how long things will take. I meet people on the street and they remember me. It's very rewarding," Stremsterfer said.

She also volunteers at her church and for the Festival of Trees.

Merwyn Nelson, 69, has been volunteering for three years.

"Several men I know knew I was approaching retirement, and they kept urging me to be an escort.

"I enjoy the time here. You develop some really good friends."

Nelson has a pretty heavy volunteer schedule. In addition to Memorial, he also volunteers at the Lawrence Adult Education Center teaching English as a second language, with other church members he visits the McFarland Mental Health Center to visit with the residents and he tutors immigrants who are studying for citizenship.

Carol Kulavic, 56, has been a volunteer for a little more than a year. She helps at the surgical waiting desk.

"I've been on the other side and known you've got to have empathy," she said.

"There's a lot of stress in waiting, and you have to deal with that with them," she said. In her former life, she was a special education teacher, so the patience she learned from that helps her with stressed out loved ones waiting for someone to come out of surgery.

She said if she has problems at home, she forgets all about them at Memorial because she has to help people deal with things that are a lot more life changing.

Sisters Viola Swoboda and Janelle Athorp are members of the Hospital Sister of the Third Order of St. Francis. Part of the Franciscan order's mission includes giving spiritual support and assistance.

Sister Viola volunteers in the intensive care area.

"I feel very fulfilled. The need is great. I introduce the family to the unit; give them information about the hospital and area if they need it. I love history so I love to sit and listen and, of course, provide spiritual assistance. I pray and listen."

Sister Janelle helps out at the information desk.

"I enjoy this because it continues our health care ministry. I enjoy the work with patients and their families," she said.

Both Penning and Budny said the volunteers are such caring and compassionate individuals they can't help but spread that around with their volunteer efforts.

All of the volunteers said the appreciation of the patients, families and the staff members at the medical facilities is what keeps them coming back and keeps them recruiting friends and family to join them. 



SIU School of Medicine Community Support Network volunteers

The clients Peggy Raabe and Karen Lee deal with need a tremendous amount of help but are also tremendously underserved.

Their clients are mentally ill, some function at a high level, some do not. All are deserving of the help that comes from the Southern Illinois School of Medicine Community Support Network, but both women say their efforts are grossly under funded.

CSN is a management and support program for those with severe and persistent psychiatric disabilities. CSN uses a unique treatment program in that direct assistance is given in the client's environment.

"This is hands on," said Raabe, clinical services coordinator with CSN. "We go to their houses, we make them take their medication, we interact with their families if they have them. We try to improve their social situation and keep them functioning."

Lee, director of CSN, said their clients have been in and out of mental institutions. Many have also been in and out of jail or have had repeated contact with law enforcement, and they usually have substance abuse problems and typically, more than one substance.

"They don't look pretty, they don't smell good and they are pretty much exclusively the target of state and public health departments."

But the funding from both those agencies is lacking. Instead of waiting for more money and watching more and more fall through the cracks because the program can only serve 70, CSN looks for creative ways to serve their clients and improve the quality of their lives.

"We'd like to expand the program," Raabe said.

"We've got about 30 or so more people waiting and then we stopped putting people on a waiting list," Lee said.

Out of an urgent need with no end in sight to funding problems, Friends of CSN was formed.

The volunteer board meets monthly to look for ways to improve things for clients and also work on fundraisers. Volunteers take clients on social events like to the state fair or fishing.

"They are so appreciative of anything," Raabe said. "We got new pillows from a store and I walked in with them and people were like - 'Wow, a pillow - a new one' because they just don't get a lot of new stuff, ever. They probably sleep on something that we would never consider sleeping on."

CSN sets up an Angel Tree and hopes they get enough people who want to fulfill wishes for the clients.

"Reading them is heartbreaking," Lee. said "They want socks or gum or maybe a small table."

CSN is setting up an auction with proceeds going to help clients. The auction was set up through help from part of the volunteer board.

"A couple of Springfield police officers, members of the Crisis Intervention Team, are volunteers," Lee said. "One officer volunteered to come in and teach juggling. The clients loved it.

Police Officer Chris Bolinger, who works as a liaison with CIT for the mentally ill, has been a Friend of CSN for about four years.

As a hostage negotiator, member of CIT, community relations officer, someone who also works to prevent elder abuse, Bolinger has had a lot of contact with people dealing with mental illness. David Fuchs, administrative assistant of the community relations section of the Springfield Police Department.

Bolinger said he "dragged" Fuchs to a Friends of CSN meeting and he got hooked.

Fuchs, who comes to the SPD via Chicago, worked in the uptown area of Chicago and is no stranger to the mentally ill and the homeless.

They say at least once every shift, every day; the SPD have contact with someone who is mentally ill. Not knowing how to deal with them can exacerbate a small incident into a volatile situation.

Bolinger said last year he and Fuchs served Christmas dinner to the clients. Bolinger wore his uniform to get clients used to seeing someone in uniform in a non-confrontational situation.

The two, also took clients to state fair for a corn dog and lemon shake-up.

"We took them on a fishing trip, and they had the time of their lives," Bolinger said. "We took pictures and it was great. We try to provide them with some normalcy ... things they've read about or heard about that they'd love to do that you or I wouldn't think twice about doing because we do it all the time."

Bolinger took one client who loved motorcycles to a motorcycle shop, which is now closed, and the owner let the client hang out, talk motorcycles and start one up.

"He was so excited. What we do is like 'make a wish' only on a small and more personal scale."

"Whenever we are out, the interaction helps the client as well as the community," Fuchs said.

He said he enjoys the time set up by CSN so clients can interact with community members.

The auction plans were born out of a coffee and conversation attended by Fuchs and Bolinger. A client asked Bolinger how auctions worked because he needed furniture.

"I offered to put on a little mock auction so they would understand, and then we thought that would be a great way to raise money for CSN," Bolinger said.

He and Fuchs have been picking up items and the auction will be done in January at Luke Lee Gaule Auction Center in Rochester.*

The night before the real auction, Bolinger will hold an auction to show clients how things work.

The simple goals of CSN is to get Christmas presents for the clients and donations for a holiday dinner.

A long-range goal is get more volunteers in and make the best use of their talents.

"We need people who could write grants - we are in need of safe subsidized housing for clients. We are in need of transportation help. We have started a pool of people who care and this is a grassroots effort to improve the quality of life for people who are often shunned and abandoned by their families."

Raabe said all efforts help raise awareness in the community about the mentally ill and each small kindness towards a client is met with appreciation that far outweighs the effort.

* Editor's note: Information on a specific auction date and time will be put on the SO Web site, www.springfieldsown.com, as it becomes available. Monetary donations to CSN are tax deductible and they can be sent care of: SIU School of Medicine, Department of Psychiatry, P.O. Box 19642, Springfield, IL 62794-9642. The clinic where clients are served on an outpatient basis is always looking for donations of personal care items and a small food pantry with nonperishable items is used by the staff for the clients. Each year they try to give every client a holiday gift. 



Springfield Clinic drug trial volunteers

While Springfield Clinic doesn't use volunteers as escorts or clinical help, they do utilize volunteers in the numerous drug trials that are conducted at the clinic each year.

"The trials certainly help the patients and give them an opportunity to participate in new medicines or treatments in the development stage and promote a healthier way of living. For the doctors and nurses," said Mary Stewart, chief clinical officer at Springfield Clinic, "they get to work with cutting edge technology."

Stewart said the clinic has made enough of a name for itself in trials that drug companies as well as other medical facilities direct patients to the clinic.

"Patients in Kentucky and St. Louis were interested in participating in a drug trial that was taking place in Texas. When they called there - they said they were interested in having them participate, but they could do the trial here because one was being conducted here," she said.

Two full-time regulatory specialists and eight coordinators help facilitate the trials. At any given time there may be as many as 30 trials going on.

Patients who qualify for a research study may receive free doctor's care, study medication, free lab work and even some compensation.

Stewart said trials are conducted in all areas of medical expertise served by the clinic including cardiology, oncology, infectious diseases, dermatology, orthopedics and plastic surgery.

A doctor at the clinic recently participated in a trial where he was granted a compassionate use approval to implant an artificial iris in a patient who could only see what he described as a bright halo through one eye.

"Each trial is different," Stewart said, "and each can easily end up serving thousands."



Are you interested in becoming a volunteer?

* Those interested in becoming a Samaritan should contact the Samaritan office at St. John's Hospital - 544-6464, ext. 44204.

* Those interested in becoming a Red Coat can call the office of community service at Memorial Medical Center -788-3374.





Story published Friday, December 5, 2008 ( Volume 3, Number 7 )

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