Comfort and care

Brenda Cherami takes notes from Donald Palisi to make into a

Prayer. Poetry. A furry friend. Some of the simple comforts of
home are brought directly to the bedside of hospital patients, at a
time when comfort is perhaps needed most.
The people who bring such solace are humble, happy to work
behind the scenes. Their faces are kind, etched with lines deepened
by thousands of smiles.
Prayer. Poetry. A furry friend. Some of the simple comforts of home are brought directly to the bedside of hospital patients, at a time when comfort is perhaps needed most.

The people who bring such solace are humble, happy to work behind the scenes. Their faces are kind, etched with lines deepened by thousands of smiles. They perform their work simply for the reward of a job well done: They are volunteers.

Brenda Cherami turns Saint Louise Regional Hospital patients into poets. For more than a year, Cherami, 64, of Gilroy, has spent a weekly four-hour shift with patients in a transitional ward, who have suffered from serious medial problems such as a stroke or hip replacement, and are preparing to return home.

“We visit and get acquainted for a while, and get to know each other. We read a poem or two,” Cherami said.

On a recent Wednesday, she met with patient Don Palisi for the second time during his stay. After spending a half-hour or so together, Palisi returned to his room having listened to poems about past presidents, and with a poem of his own, the words from his own memories but turned into verse by Cherami.

The poems are often themed around the time of year or holiday. For example, the last time Cherami and Palisi met, they read poems about love for Valentine’s Day. When it came time for Palisi to write his own, Cherami asked him where he would travel, if for a Valentine’s present he could visit any place he wanted. Palisi chose Italy, where his father grew up.

“I usually ask questions that are easy to answer and the responses are recorded and then put into a formula to create a poem,” Cherami said.

She will keep a copy of the poem for herself, put a copy in a file at the hospital, and give the patient his or her own copy. The poetry reminds them of good times past and puts them in a positive state of mind, Cherami said.

“There’s some mental stimulation going on,” she said. “It helps: the dignity of knowing the importance of what’s happened in (their) life, and the respect I feel for the patient.”

Volunteers like Cherami also provide a reason for patients to get out of their beds and rooms to gather in the meeting room, where flowers adorn a table and sunlight streams in through a west-facing window.

“People are social beings,” said Maria Gallagher, activity director at Saint Louise. “They need to meet other people to reinforce and motivate. … These patients are in a transition between being very ill and getting ready to go home and we’re here to make their transition a little easier, so they can think more positively about what’s happening to them.”

Four-legged volunteers

Volunteers bring that optimism in a variety of ways, by distributing coffee or orange juice, or even making over patients with a new hair-do. More than 100 volunteers help the hospital run smoothly on a daily basis and spend time with patients one-on-one, bringing smiles or simply a hand to hold.

Many patients and their family members alike cannot stop the joy that spreads across their faces when volunteer Izzi stops by for a visit.

The furry, four-legged 10-year-old calmly walks through the hospital hallways guided by her trainer, Dick Symons of Morgan Hill. Symons, 68, has been bringing certified Therapy Dogs to Saint Louise and a Morgan Hill senior home for more than 14 years and says they’re the volunteers – he’s just the chauffeur.

“It’s their job and they do it very well,” Symons said. “It just takes a dog that knows how to be soft and gentle and calm around sick elderly people. … They seem to enjoy it. They get treats, but every one of my dogs, when I get them out of the car, they pull me toward the front door – and they’re not supposed to pull.”

Izzi, a Belgian Tervuren, or sheep dog, did not pull on the leash as she entered Cal Schlesinger’s room. Her fluffy coat was the perfect invitation, and Schlesinger happily bent down to pet her.

Sometimes, the dogs simply act as a facilitator for conversation between a patient and Symons. Other times, all the patient wants to do is pet the dogs.

“Every once in a while, there’s a significant change or break with the patient. But that’s from the dog, not me,” Symons said.

Hospital visits can weigh heavily on family members or bring fear to patients, but Symons says his dogs take the burden in stride.

“Most dogs sense the person’s sickness or medical situation, but they don’t see the tubes, the bad,” he said. “All that they see is the person under all that. My dogs have handled terminal patients. Some will be apprehensive, but most of the time they will attempt to get up on the bed to console them.”

Symons said he “couldn’t do it, in some cases” were it not for his therapy dogs.

Prayer benefits patients, volunteer

A higher power is what enables volunteer Richard Flores to walk through the main entrance to Saint Louise every Thursday night as he has done for more than 10 years. God called him to minister to the sick, he said, and through God he can help patients overcome their problems.

On a recent evening, Flores’ volunteer badge hung around his neck as he walked to the reception desk to pick up a list of patients he would try to see that night. Most will welcome his offer of prayer, he said, but every once in a while someone declines.

He looked at the list and knocked on the door to a patient’s room, poking his head inside.

“Would you like prayer?” he asked. “I’m here to pray for you, if you like.”

“Oh,” the elderly patient replied, surprised. “Yes, please.”

Flores, 56, a life-long member of Saint Mary Catholic Parish in Gilroy, folded his hands and quietly began to pray. The words grew louder and tumbled out of his mouth in a chant-like melody. About a minute later, he exited the room, a broad smile seen underneath his salt-and-pepper beard.

“It’s a spiritual thing,” he said. “I really enjoy people, I enjoy talking to people and ministering to them. We both benefit. It’s a two-way street when you do things for other people.”

The next patient, a Spanish speaker, was Catholic, according to Flores’ list. He was confused when Flores asked if he wanted prayer: When?, he asked.

Now, Flores said.

Where? Right Here.

“I can stay there a good half-hour, an hour, easy, with them,” Flores said. “The elderly like to talk. But I try to limit my time so I can get to all the patients … depending on what their need in prayer is.”

As with the other volunteers, Flores said volunteering is therapeutic for himself, too. After all, they point out, who wouldn’t feel good after spending time with someone who appreciates a friendly face?

“Sometimes, you get overwhelmed. Not with the hospital, but at work, things at home,” Flores said. “Even if I feel a little down when I come, when I leave this place, I feel good.”

Volunteers bring comfort, care

At Hazel Hawkins Memorial Hospital in Hollister, about 140 volunteers, mostly working four-hour shifts, don’t care directly for patients but perform other much-needed duties such as greeting visitors at the reception desk, sterilizing towels for the operating room, or escorting patients around the hospital.

“The hospital says they don’t know what they’d do without them,” said Babette Martin, director of volunteers. “They help it run smoothly, and people don’t tend to get lost because someone’s always around.”

Most of the volunteers are retired seniors, “but we’re still in good shape,” according to Martin. They provide a friendly face during a time when people often are nervous or fearful.

Jeri Simmons has been one of those faces for the past 23 years. She currently works between two and five days each week. Simmons said she has always enjoyed being “a great help” to Hazel Hawkins as a receptionist or escort.

When her husband became ill, she was thankful for a little time away from home, she said.

“When he later died, volunteering really filled that void,” Simmons said.

At the end of the day, each volunteer wants the patients they see to remember the brighter moments of their stay and of their lives, in general. The volunteers rest assured knowing the comfort and smiles they bring to patients may have much benefit in the long run.

“You make them feel more comfortable, and then they know someone’s there who cares for them,” Flores said. “It can be real hard for them – especially someone who’s been in here for months and months. Those are the ones that are really critical, because it makes a big difference in how fast someone recovers.”

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