The following is an excerpt from our 2013 Annual Report: A Recipe for Success.
During a trip to Hawaii in April of 2000, Irene Schaefer’s husband fell, hit his head, and died two days later at Queens Medical Center in Honolulu. Irene was completely alone, except for the chaplaincy volunteers at the hospital who sat with her during her husband’s final two days.
“It was traumatic and sad, but those people kept me going,” says Irene.
Just a month later, back in Randolph, a local reverend with the help of a team of area churchgoers started the volunteer chaplaincy program at Gifford. It was too soon for Irene, a local resident, but when a second training was scheduled that November, Irene signed up. “I had to get out and give back because of what I had been given in Hawaii.”
In the more than decade since, this now 85-year-old has made Gifford her “second home.” “It’s very rewarding. I get more out of it than I give,” she says.
She comes several times a month to spend a couple of hours visiting with patients. When a patient is dying, Irene offers a prayer “for a calm and smooth transition.” Mostly, though, she listens. “Everybody has a story,” she says.
She is often the person called in the night to comfort a patient or family in the Emergency Department.
For Irene, it is not her first “job” or even her first volunteer job. From New Jersey, Irene was a church secretary for years. Upon moving to Randolph 40 years ago, she worked at DuBois and King as the “girl Friday” distributing mail, developing photos in a dark room and operating the business’ first computer, which was roughly the size of Gifford’s chapel, she recalls. She went on to do computer work for a local accountant, until retiring in 1991. A decade of volunteering at White River Valley Ambulance in billing followed.
At WRVA, Irene chased down patients and insurance companies for payments.
At Gifford, the only payment a soft spoken, elegant and humorous Irene is seeking is peace of mind.
“I think I could write a book. The experiences have been from very humorous to very sad. I have had a marriage proposal,” she says with a laugh. “I’ve also been in the Garden Room (for end-of-life patients). I don’t want to say it’s my favorite place, but it’s a place where I feel comfortable, when some of the other (volunteers) do not, because I have been there personally, and I totally admire our palliative care system.”
That admiration and an ongoing need for a comforting hand and listening ear will keep Irene volunteering with Gifford’s chaplaincy program as long as she’s able.
“I look at it as a need. It’s a need that’s being fulfilled, which doesn’t happen at all hospitals. It’s part of Gifford’s outreach and caring and the reason why patients want to be here.”