Susan Skiff walked into a room at Butler Memorial Hospital and found a man in his 90s propped up in his bed and looking glum.
She visited with him for a bit. He glanced at her sparingly. Said even less.
Skiff, who has worked at the hospital as an aide in the surgical department for 16 years, carried with her an iPad.
She offered to connect the man with his family and he nodded.
When he saw his grandson pop onto the screen, a smile creased his face.
“'How the (expletive) did my grandson get in that box?'” he exclaimed.
They shared a laugh and the man began to open up to Skiff. He told her stories about his life, both sad and whimsical.
His eyes sparkled.
“Helping these people,” Skiff said, “brings tears to your eyes.”
Very important mission
Skiff is one of 14 hospital employees who are taking on a very important mission during a coronavirus pandemic that has altered so much of daily life.
They are going room to room at BMH, connecting patients, who can no longer have visitors because of COVID-19 restrictions, with family and friends via Facetime on iPads.
The volunteers are also just simply spending time with the patients. Listening to them. Swapping stories with them. Breaking up the mundane.
“Initially we thought it was going to be the older folks who would need this,” said Marie Yingling, who has worked at the hospital for two decades. “What we ended up finding out is it's the younger people who chatted us up more than the old folks.”
The idea was Yingling's brainchild.
When the hospital stopped allowing visitors, she saw a void that needed to be filled.
“When we did that, there was great concern from nurses and a lot of folks here about how hard it is going to be for family and patients,” Yingling said. “We heard from a lot of people. We decided we could be the visitors.”
And that's how it began.
Yingling calls the group the Compassionate Rounders.
The volunteers went room to room, floor to floor to visit. It wasn't until later the idea sparked to allow patients to visit with family via Facetime.
The hospital's information systems department then went to work to procure as many iPads as they could.
“I don't know the exact number — I think I heard we got 20 or 40 of them,” Yingling said. “We're not using all of them. But we have them.”
Each day, at least two volunteers visit every patient in the hospital during six- to eight-hour shifts.
Some visits are very short. Other last a bit longer.
“Patients tell you their sorrows,” Yingling said. “They just need a sympathetic ear.”
More than COVID-19; more than patients
One of the early ideas was to just connect coronavirus patients with their families.
But it didn't take long to expand to all patients, Yingling said.
As well as hospital staff that are on the front lines.
“Everyone is in the same boat,” Yingling said.
It was also important for the volunteers to help the nurses on the COVID-19 floors cope.
“They go to the COVID floor to support the nurses because those nurses have a tough job,” Yingling said. “To go into that type of isolation, the equipment you have to wear, there's a lot of stress there. Anything we can do to help them we're going to try to do.
“When things are sad for patients,” Yingling added, “they're sad for nurses, too.”
Because of the risk, Skiff said she was leery at first to be one of the volunteers.
“I was kind of hesitant to do it because I am a little bit of a high risk,” she said. “Once I did it, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It has been so much fun.”
Yingling and her volunteers are careful when they do enter a COVID-19 patient's room.
“We put (the iPad) in a plastic bag and when we're done it can be cleaned off with a disinfectant,” Yingling said. “We take all safety measures.”
What keeps the volunteers coming back is the faces.
And the smiles they see blossom on them.
Skiff told a story of a woman who was particularly sad one day after not seeing or communicating with her daughter for days.
“She was teary and depressed,” Skiff said. “I just talked to her. I asked her if she'd like to talk to her family and see them. She asked, 'How can I do that?'”
Skiff called her daughter.
“When the woman saw her daughter, she just immediately started crying,” Skiff said. “The daughter said, 'Mom, you look so good.'”
Yingling said: “Seeing that someone is comfortable, that's worth a million bucks.”
Yingling had one of her most interesting interactions with a man who fancied himself a musician.
“He asked me if I knew the song 'Folsom Prison Blues' by Johnny Cash?'” Yingling said. “I told him I did and he said, 'Well, I rewrote it and it's a gospel song' and he proceeded to sing it. I swear it was six verses long. It was priceless.”
To the 14 volunteers, brightening patients' days has been what has been priceless.
“So, in the end, the staff is getting as much out of this as the patients and families are,” Yingling said. “There is nothing like seeing the relief one feels when they see their loved one.”