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Cedar Rapids hospitals rely on volunteers to help patients, staff

Helping hands

John McDonough listens to Walter Kotar of Solon, Iowa, is Kotar asks McDonough for help in clarifying an insurance charg
John McDonough listens to Walter Kotar of Solon, Iowa, is Kotar asks McDonough for help in clarifying an insurance charge at the Senior Health Insurance Information Program office at St. Luke's Hospital in northeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Wednesday, May 6, 2015. McDonough has been a volunteer at the hospital for 20 years. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Take a look around one either of Cedar Rapids’s hospitals and you’ll find hundreds of employees — physicians, nurses and support staff treating patients and helping their families.

But you’ll also find a large number of volunteers stationed throughout the hospital, working around the clock and even coming in during snowstorms.

Volunteers are essential to a hospital running smoothly, Cedar Rapids hospital officials say, as they help improve the bottom line and the patient experience.

At Mercy Medical Center, its 800-plus volunteers contributed more than 143,000 hours or service in 2014, which equates to more than $3 million in salaries and wages — if they were being paid. Right down the road at UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s Hospital, the more than 950 volunteers contributed 95,000 hours of service, equaling more than $2 million.

“Our volunteers are really an extended arm of the staff,” said Sister Marilyn Ward, director of Mercy’s volunteer services.

Volunteers at Mercy and St. Luke’s can be found throughout the hospital — at information desks, the emergency department and gift shops. But they’re also in less visible roles, such as stocking inventory, entering data and running tests to the labs, said Angela Berns, manager of volunteer services at St. Luke’s.

“Volunteers are the best hospital ambassador. They are out there talking about St. Luke’s in the community,” Berns added.

But even more important, they can provide comfort to patients and their families, she said.

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“Sometimes you want to talk to someone like you,” Berns said. “You’re worried about being able to pay your bill, or you need to put together a will. Volunteers can provide resources in a nonthreatening way.”

Ward agreed.

“Most volunteers have been patients. They know what it’s like. They understand because they’ve been there,” she said.

Bingo and Rolodexes

Volunteer needs for hospitals have evolved over the years. Gone are the days of candy stripers and fundraisers, which were replaced with different student-specific programing and foundations whose sole focus is raising dollars.

Instead the hospitals have added and taken away programs over the years.

Just this year Mercy added its Care Partner Program, which is designed to help the family of patients be more familiar with the hospital and surrounding area, Ward said.

“The volunteers will show them the cafeteria, the chapel, the gift shop. They can help them find overnight lodging,” she added.

Pat Holub, who has been a Mercy volunteer for 33 years, remembers when the hospital obtained its first computer in 1987, and recounted a time when patients were organized in a Rolodex.

“We rolled (the computer) around on a cart. I had to share it with HR and the lab,” she said. Holub, who has accumulated more than 26,000 volunteer hours at Mercy, has worked all over the hospital, including outpatient surgery, administration and the blood bank. She was also the Bingo chairman, a post that isn’t even around anymore.

“After I retired, I was home for about two years before I was just like, oooooff, I can’t do this anymore,” she said. “Staying home is for the birds.”

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Betty Shelton, a Mercy volunteer for 24 years who has accumulated more than 22,000 hours, remarked on how much the hospital has grown over the years.

“The building just keeps changing,” she said.

Shelton, who primarily is stationed in the Mercy Women’s Center and the Hall Perrine Cancer Center, began volunteering with her husband, Dale, once he retired.

“We talked about what we’d like to do — and we decided we wanted to take a cruise and volunteer at Mercy. We got signed up and right in the program, and we never did take that cruise,” she said.

A mix

The majority of Mercy’s volunteers are retirees, Ward said, but there are also students that participate in job shadows and internships. It’s a similar mix over at St. Luke’s, where Berns said the hospital has students, stay-at-home moms and retirees.

“It helps with career exploration, continued education and help keeps your mind engaged after you retire,” Berns said.

John McDonough, 80, has worked for St. Luke’s Hospital’s Senior Health Insurance Information Program (SHIIP) for about 20 years, helping thousands of area seniors sort through information on Medicare and related health insurance issues.

As with Holub and Shelton, the retired Rockwell Collins engineer said he didn’t want to “sit at home and do nothing.”

The Iowa Insurance Division created SHIIP in 1990 to provide free, confidential and objective counseling to Medicare patients and caregivers about Medicare, Medicare prescription drug plans, billings and claims issues and long-term care insurance.

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The team saved 2,345 individuals more than $703,000 on prescription drugs in 2014, St. Luke’s officials said.

And McDonough, along with 29 volunteers at St. Luke’s, was just awarded the American Hospital Association’s Hospital Awards for Volunteer Excellence in Washington, D.C.

McDonough said the team is especially busy in the fall, during Medicare Open Enrollment. He volunteers up to four days a week and even does paperwork at home on Saturdays.

“I really enjoy interfacing with the public and answering questions,” he said. “I can point them in the right direction. I help them out and they help me out by keeping me active.”

By the numbers

Mercy Medical Center

• Number of volunteers — 800

• Number of hours — 143,000

• Dollar value of volunteer hours — $3 million

UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s Hospital

• Number of volunteers — 950

• Number of hours — 95,000

• Dollar value of volunteer hours — $2 million

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