OELWEIN — When Randy McQueen broke his leg eight years ago, he never imagined just how much it would change his life.
McQueen, 51, of Oelwein, would spend the summer recovering at Mercy Living Plus, the assisted living and long-term care center inside Oelwein’s Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare hospital.
During his stay, and subsequent post-operation recovery stays, McQueen saw a community of residents who had once been independent now needing help with the most basic tasks. McQueen needed help, too, as he suffers from Morquio syndrom, a rare disease the affects the development of bones, joints and the spine and also causes dwarfism.
McQueen’s stay at Mercy Living Plus, along with subsequent post-operation recovery stays, made him realize how much he had in common with his fellow residents at the care center.
“I’m used to doing things by myself at home,” McQueen said. “There, I was not able to get up and grab a Kleenex or get a drink of water. They relied on someone else to do that. I found myself in the same position.”
When he returned home, McQueen, unable to work, says he spent long hours alone.
“I knew I was wasting potential at home, but didn’t know what to do,” McQueen said. He had remembered the summer he spent at Mercy Living Plus.
“When I was here after I broke my leg, I realized I had a decision to make. I could have a miserable summer here or I could turn lemons into lemonade,” he said.
Then the phone rang.
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It was Sue Schneider, activities director at Mercy Living Plus, asking if McQueen wanted to volunteer.
“He had more to give,” Schneider said.
McQueen took the gig and has now been volunteering on a regular basis for more than six years at Mercy Living Plus. He has logged thousands of hours as a regular on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the care center.
His efforts have resulted in McQueen being named the American Healthcare Association and National Center for Assisted Living’s 2016 Volunteer of the Year. He’s heading to Nashville in October to attend the organization’s 67th annual convention and expo, where he’ll receive the honor, given to a person who helps assisted living residents achieve their potential, displays great leadership in initiating programs, encourages others to volunteers and goes above and beyond the call of duty, among other criteria.
At Mercy Living Plus, McQueen is known for his ability to connect with residents, as well as patients in other hospital departments. He has a special kind of dry humor patients pick up on, Schneider said, and is able to put a positive spin on negative situations.
He’s also know for dressing up in costumes for various holidays and occasions. He’s played Baby New Year, a leprechaun, a scarecrow and an elf.
McQueen has nicknames for some of the residents, like “Betty Spaghetti,” and he has a special wave to greet some of the patients.
Amid all the fun, there are also times of deep and significant impact.
McQueen said on one stay at Mercy Living Plus, he shared a room with a man who was nearing the end of his life and had grown more and more unresponsive.
“His two daughters asked for me to come visit with them,” McQueen said. “While I was in the room, he woke up and said he heard my voice and we visited for a couple minutes. He squeezed my hand really tight. Before I left the room, he went back to sleep, and I think that was one of the last times he was awake.”
McQueen said interacting with the patients is now a necessity for him.
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“It takes my mind off my own problems,” he said. “I’m usually trying to put myself in their place. If I go a week or two without being here, I start getting a little nutty.
“It’s like a homing beacon. Too much energy, no release. I can only make myself laugh so much at home.”