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Even During Pandemic, Volunteers Bring Comfort

Undeterred By COVID-19, Emergency Department Volunteers Offer Compassion and Support; Volunteer Appreciation Week Underway

The Ruth and Harry Roman Emergency Department at Cedars-Sinai sees more than 85,000 patients each year. Among the first to greet those patients and their loved ones–even during the coronavirus pandemic–are Cedars-Sinai’s blue-coated volunteers, who are honored this week during National Volunteer Appreciation Week.

Volunteers are by the side of patients and their loved ones on what, for some, can be the worst day of their lives. Volunteers escort patients to their rooms, help them change into hospital gowns and store their belongings. They comfort patients with warm socks and blankets, water and snacks. They help patients and families connect with the staff, and most importantly, they listen to frightened and upset patients and their loved ones, and offer words of comfort.

“Their presence is important,” said Claude Stang, RN, MA, executive director of the Emergency Department. “Sometimes things that may seem small to us can make a big difference for patients and families. And for clinicians, having the volunteers around to help answer questions and bring a sense of calm creates an environment of support and comfort.”

Before the pandemic began, 188 of the more than 2,500 volunteers at the medical center worked in emergency services. As the initial wave of coronavirus patients arrived, there were still many unanswered questions about the virus and how it spread. Many volunteers gave up their shifts, but some wanted to stay.

One of them was Manoela Maciel, who has been volunteering in the Emergency Department for five years.

“I was taking as many shifts as I could at the time, because we did not have a lot of volunteers,” said Maciel, whose job in retail came to a halt as stores closed and the pandemic shut down many aspects of daily life. “I was OK being there, as I live alone and wouldn’t risk infecting family members. And I could see that people needed help.”

Within weeks, however, in an abundance of caution, the medical center's volunteer programs were temporarily suspended. Volunteers returned to the Emergency Department in June and Maciel was among them.

Coming Back 

Maciel's first encounter that day was with a young women tearfully watching her father being wheeled away to the COVID-19 patient area, where she would not be able to visit him.

“She started crying,’” said Maciel. “I told her, ‘I’m going to be watching all the time. I’m going to make sure he’s not cold, and the nurses are going to make sure he has everything he needs.’”

Maya Kotlov, a second grade teacher at a Mar Vista charter school who will mark her third anniversary as an Emergency Department volunteer in November, said it was the opportunity to help others at such a difficult time that brought her back.

"I was a little scared coming back, but I felt safer, I still feel safer, in the hospital than I do anywhere else," Kotlov said. “You know people are being responsible here.”

Kotlov first began volunteering after her own experiences with chronic health issues in her 20s.

“I recall being a patient and being alone and scared,” said Kotlov. “That’s why I became a volunteer. So many of these patients were initially alone, and the volunteers and the staff were the only people they were interacting with. I was so cognizant of that, especially in the early days of COVID when we first came back.”

Their return has been celebrated by many, including Sam Torbati, MD, co-chair and medical director of the Emergency Department. “The department wasn’t the same without our volunteers and we missed them greatly,” said Torbati. “The compassion and kindness they bring to their shifts and the comfort they provide our patients during times of crisis is invaluable. I’m incredibly grateful to each of our volunteers, and am delighted to have them back.”

Feeling Connected 

Though volunteering in the ED is sometimes difficult, it offers abundant rewards: “Some days are very challenging,” Kotlov said, “but it allows me to feel connected to humanity after 14 months of Zoom.”

Said volunteer Danica Jamieson, an entry-level MSN student candidate, “At one point I was the only person in my household who left home other than for groceries. Any risks of coming to the Emergency Department seemed small compared to the help I felt I was providing to the community. As an African American, I was compelled to be a face on the front lines and serve people like me who were struggling with this pandemic disproportionately.”

As a volunteer, Maciel, has also witnessed what she calls “love in its truest form.” Like the man in his late-80s who accompanied his wife, being treated for head trauma. He asked Maciel for a comb so that he could comb the blood from his wife’s hair. The pair had been sweethearts since high school, and he knew that she would want to be properly groomed when she woke up.

“That was one of the most tender things I’ve ever seen,” said Maciel, who found a comb and helped the man tend to his wife. “I think the walls of the hospital have seen so many genuine demonstrations of love, more than any other place.”

Maciel soon will be joined by additional volunteers, said Michele Prince, LCSW, MAJCS, director of Volunteer Services.

“The needs of the Emergency Department are present 24/7. We are working right now to bring back many of the volunteers who were on leave during the most difficult months of the pandemic–and we are starting with the ED,” said Prince. “We so appreciate the dedication of all the Cedars-Sinai volunteers. They are ambassadors of empathy and compassion, giving so much of themselves in a challenging environment without expecting anything in return. They walk the walk of Cedars-Sinai’s mission to be a blessing to our community.”

Read more on the Cedars-Sinai Blog: Getting Back Into Care During COVID-19