Pamela Fogan recalls the day she met a reluctant teenage girl whose mother had pressured her to volunteer at Suburban Hospital. “She made it very clear she didn’t want to be here,” says Fogan, the hospital’s director of volunteer services. Today, that young woman, now 31, is a pediatric oncologist in Philadelphia who says the experience of assisting patients inspired her medical career.
It’s one of many stories Fogan shares of volunteers transformed by supporting hospital patients and staff members. Volunteering is no longer the domain of teenagers often required to perform community service. Increasingly, adults looking to change careers or new retirees wanting to keep busy are stepping in. Suburban Hospital’s largest group of volunteers, Fogan says, is people between the ages of 65 and 90.
At any age, she says, volunteering at the facility offers rewards — often in unexpected ways, as many of the hospital’s 300 volunteers can attest. “It’s not just giving a few hours of their time,” Fogan says. “They do it out of love. They want to show how they can give. And, sometimes they are the only ‘family’ patients have.”
In the process, volunteers feel grateful for opportunities to make a difference in someone’s life, says Fogan. With the hospital doubling in size due to the opening of a clinical addition this winter, volunteers continue to play a vital role in supporting care.
Meet three Suburban Hospital volunteers who are forging bonds and supporting the hospital’s mission of “improving health with skill and compassion”:
Front Desk Rewards
From the moment Nancy Walsh settles into her chair at Suburban Hospital’s information desk, phone calls command her attention. Walsh fields as many as 30 during her four-hour shift. Requests are generally predictable: “Can you give me my mom’s room number?” “When are visiting hours?” In between calls, people walk up to the desk with questions. Looking confused or concerned, they might ask, “Where’s the emergency department?” or, “Do you know where I could find a priest to give last rites to my father?”
Things can get hectic, she says, even with another person working alongside her. But Walsh, a retiree who has volunteered her services for the past four years, loves the job. “You just do what you can to help others,” she says.
She adds that it is “extremely rewarding work” in a way that her previous career was not. Her new role provides far more opportunities to make emotional connections. Raised in Latin America, Walsh is fluent in Spanish — a boon to the growing number of Latino families who need help finding their way around the hospital.
She knows what it’s like to feel confused and vulnerable. Until she was 55, Walsh never needed surgery. But, beginning in 2007, she underwent three operations. “I knew I wanted to volunteer at Suburban Hospital, to give back and help others,” she says.
Walsh recalls the day an elderly man walked up to her desk, upset because he couldn’t find his wife. After some digging, Walsh learned that the patient was at a different hospital. She jotted down directions to the hospital, adding her name and phone number in case he had any trouble. The next morning, the man’s daughter called Walsh. “She was so grateful” Walsh says. “And I was just as grateful to have been of some help.”
Hearing Patients’ and Nurses’ Needs
At 17, Kayla Cesone has developed a sixth sense for what patients or nurses might need. That could have something to do with her upbringing. An only child, Cesone grew up with parents who are severely hearing impaired. What’s more, Cesone spent time as an inpatient at Suburban Hospital after emergency episodes of severe wheezing and shortness of breath. Now, she is a hospital volunteer, assisting nurses on the adult medical unit.
Cesone says she not only wanted to get more exposure to a medical setting, but also wanted to give back to the hospital. “I feel like I grew up in their pediatric department,” she says. Cesone has reconnected with some of the nurses who remember her from when she was first admitted as a 3-year-old for acute asthma.
Because she is home-schooled, Cesone has been able to volunteer every Wednesday morning. She checks supplies, makes sure rooms are ready for patients and answers phones.
She enjoys responding to nonurgent calls the most. “It’s fun to chat with the patients,” she says. “Sometimes they’ll ask for coffee or crackers. Other times, the nurses need help getting supplies. I’m doing things to alleviate the nurses’ work so they can actually see patients.”
Working with and watching the nurses at Suburban Hospital has inspired her to pay closer attention to patients’ needs. Cesone, who is beginning college this fall out of state, plans to pursue a career in nursing. And she hopes to continue volunteering at the hospital during college breaks.
Supporting Kindred Hearts
Howard Gilson has battled heart disease since he was 35, when he had his first angioplasty. In 2007, at age 55, Gilson — then a customer service supervisor for Southwest Airlines — learned he needed triple bypass surgery. Since then, Gilson has remained gratefully symptom free.
When he retired in 2010, his wife suggested he volunteer at Suburban Hospital, where he had his bypass surgery.
Gilson, now 67, met with Pamela Fogan, Suburban Hospital’s volunteer services director, and asked to work on the cardiac floor. He currently volunteers twice each week for six hours per day as a receptionist and patient liaison in the cardiac catheterization laboratory. For the past few years, Gilson has also served on Suburban’s Patient and Family Advisory Council.
In his volunteer role for the lab, Gilson greets patients and their families — who are often experiencing myriad emotions — and works to ease their concerns. Having seen his own family deal with the traumatic process of waiting anxiously through multiple heart procedures, Gilson responds quickly and empathetically to questions. He tracks down answers, such as how much longer a surgery will take. And he is diligent in communicating with the lab staff and director when situations require immediate attention.
Over the past nine years, Gilson has logged some 4,500 hours. The customer service skills he used while in the airline industry continue to serve him well. Whether patients are having a cardiac catheterization, a cardioversion or open heart surgery, Gilson offers a positive message: “I tell patients and their families they have come to the right hospital, are in good hands and will feel better afterwards.”
He adds: “I know exactly what the patients are going through and encourage them to use this experience as a turning point to adapting a healthier lifestyle, such as enrolling in Suburban’s cardiac rehab program.”
Gilson follows his own advice and regularly exercises in the cardiac rehab facility. He particularly enjoys encountering post-surgery patients on the treadmill — most remember him, and they appreciate his support. “Sometimes,” Gilson notes, “the patients want to give back and ask me how they can become a volunteer at Suburban.”