Hospital volunteers offer a human touch to visitors, patients

Isabel Kim featured
Volunteer Isabel Kim. Photo by Bill Buell/Gazette reporter

Volunteer Isabel Kim. Photo by Bill Buell/Gazette reporter

Gazette Reporter

With both parents in the medical profession, Niskayuna High junior Isabel Kim figured she knew what to expect when she began volunteering at Ellis Hospital earlier this summer. Well, she was wrong.

“My dad’s a doctor and my mom was a nurse, so I knew I wanted to do something in the medical field and I thought this would be a good stepping stone for me,” said Kim.

“But it’s not like I expected. I’ve also been watching a lot of ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ on TV and it’s definitely different than that. It’s been fun, but nothing like I thought it would be.”

Kim, who spends eight hours over two days volunteering at Ellis, is probably the youngest volunteer in the building. Most of them, like Glenville’s Ken Heckler, are much older and retired, and are looking to give something back to the community.

“When my wife died in the hospital, I was spending a lot of time with her there, and I could see the need,” said Heckler, who retired as vice-president of SI Group’s International Division in 1993 after 38 years with the company.

“I think everybody here who volunteers is just trying to pay it back and give something to the public. They’re a very dedicated group.”

Kim and Heckler are just two of around 200 volunteers all under the umbrella of the Volunteer Aides of Ellis Hospital. A separate non-profit entity from the hospital, the group has a mission statement that is short and simple: “Support of charity and community needs of Ellis Hospital.”

“We have around 200 very faithful people who volunteer in various areas, and a good majority of them are retired or semi-retired people looking to give something back,” said Tony Green, the director of Pastoral Care and Volunteer Services at the hospital.

“Most of them work two or three times a week, probably half a day, and there are no specific skills required, except for the pastoral care division. Everything else, we can train them.”

Many of the positions, like running the cash register in the gift shop, doing paperwork in a lab, or holding down the information desk, aren’t particularly exciting and don’t usually take an emotional toll on the volunteer. But you can also help out in the intensive care unit or even the emergency room, like Fran Gallo.

“When I lost my husband, I didn’t want to stay home and stare at the four walls,” said Gallo, who was a personal care aide at the Ingersoll Residence for 28 years before retiring.

“I also didn’t want to sit at a desk and stuff envelopes, and I didn’t want to handle any money. When I heard that a position might be open in the ER I jumped right on it.”

Gallo typically works once a week, usually on a Thursday from 9 a.m.-1 p.m.

“I will help the secretary in the ER do some of her paperwork, but I’m also the main go-for,” she said. “I go for this and I go for that. If there are anxious children involved I might bring them a coloring book. I might transport someone to X-ray or ultrasound, or bring them a cup of coffee, and I’ll talk to a patient and try to see if I can make their situation better. If they’re waiting long, they might be hungry, and I’ll go ask the doctor if I can give them something to eat. Sometimes they just want someone to talk with.”

Gallo, 72, said the staff in the Ellis ER, after a slow start, got used to her being around.

“They really made me feel welcome, and were too nice to me,” she said. “At first it was like they didn’t want to bother me by telling me to do something. But I said to them, ‘I am here to help you guys. That’s why I’m here.’ Now I feel like I’m really part of the team there and it’s a great feeling. Very rewarding.”

Karen Bova, left, Carolyn Canova, on the phone, and Marilyn Esmann chat with a patient at Ellis Hospital recently. All three women have put in plenty of volunteer hours at the hospital’s information desk. Photo by Bill Buell/Gazette reporter

Karen Bova, left, Carolyn Canova, on the phone, and Marilyn Esmann chat with a patient at Ellis Hospital recently. All three women have put in plenty of volunteer hours at the hospital’s information desk. Photo by Bill Buell/Gazette reporter

David Glass is president of the Volunteer Aides of Ellis Hospital, a paid position. He also, however, started his association with the hospital as a volunteer.

“Our group started sometime around World War II due to a shortage of nurses,” said Glass, a Brooklyn native who moved to Ridge Road in Glenville in 1977.

“Along with supplying volunteers, we also raise money for the hospital, and a major source of that income comes from the gift shops that we operate, mostly manned by volunteers. We get people who enjoy person-to-person contact, and some of the volunteer positions can put you in pretty close contact with patients.”

Nobody gets as close to the patients as Heckler, who, after retiring from the SI Group, went to seminary and became an ordained pastor in the Reformed Church of America.

Now 85, he is serving as the interim pastor at the Cranesville Reformed Church in Montgomery County, and spends two days a week volunteering as a chaplain at Ellis. And those two days are long ones, lasting from 4:30 in the afternoon until 8:15 in the morning. Unlike most of Ellis’s volunteers, Heckler sometimes does sleep on the job.

“There are slow nights, and I have a spot where I can get some sleep,” he said. “But there are also some very active nights, and I get hardly any sleep at all. I started thinking about doing something like this when my wife was sick, and eventually I became a chaplain’s aide and then decided to go to seminary.”

According to Adriane Walrath, coordinator of volunteers at the hospital, Ellis is always looking for more people willing to spend some time helping others.

“Many of our volunteers are retired, and many of them are women,” said Walrath. “During the summer months we do have some younger people, high-school kids and some college students, and all of them are enthusiastic. We’re also always looking for new volunteers, people that will be committed to helping the hospital.”

Like Nancy Cooper of Rotterdam, who has been volunteering once a week at the information desk for three years.

“I was in here once waiting for my husband and I saw all these people coming and going,” she said.

“I thought, ‘Gee, I should volunteer in a place like this.’ Once I retired I looked into it. I’m a people person. I like interacting with people, helping them find the patients they’re looking for. All I try to be is friendly and informative.”

“What I love about volunteering,” said Gallo, “is that it keeps me occupied. I go to the hospital, I feel safe there, and I work with very good people.”

Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or

This story originally appeared in The Daily Gazette.