Doris Wellner loves bringing smiles to people’s faces and offering them an encouraging word or comforting gesture. As a volunteer at affiliate Orange Park Medical Center in Orange Park, Florida, she gets to do just that. Wellner began volunteering at the hospital more than a decade ago.

Lynette Taliaferro and Doris Wellner, a volunteer at affiliate Orange Park Medical Center in Orange Park, Florida

At the time, she was a new resident in the area and her husband, Donald, had recently passed away. “Volunteering filled a void in my life after the death of my husband,” Wellner explains.

Spending time at the hospital gave her a chance to make new friends and enjoy the satisfaction of serving others. These days, Wellner volunteers two days each week at the hospital, splitting time between the emergency room (ER) and visiting patients. In the ER, she stocks public restrooms with necessities and ensures waiting patients and visitors are taken care of, often fetching a warm blanket or cup of coffee to make someone more comfortable. She’s also happy to sit with patients in need of solace or with family members feeling anxious about their loved one’s health.

“Sometimes it’s difficult to sit with someone waiting on news about a loved one or talk to a patient struggling with rehabilitation after surgery,” Wellner says. “But I’ve learned that sometimes people just need you to sit with them, offer a smile, hold their hand and remind them that they’re not alone. If I can bring a smile to someone’s face or offer a listening ear for someone to vent, I know I’ve done my job, and it brings joy to my life.”

She recalls one moment that has stayed with her for years. “When I first started volunteering at the hospital, I would sit and talk with cancer patients while they were undergoing treatment. One day, I was at a fundraiser for another organization and noticed a woman looking at me. Eventually, she approached and asked if she could give me a hug,” Wellner recalls. “She said, ‘I know you don’t recognize me because I have hair now, but you sat with me, held my hand and encouraged me when I needed it. You have no idea what that meant to me.’ She was cancer-free and beautiful.”

Moments like those are what makes volunteering so rewarding. Every day, hundreds of volunteers walk through the doors of HCA Healthcare facilities across the country. Many, like Wellner, visit with patients and families to comfort and encourage them. Some work at information desks, greeting patients and visitors and guiding them to where they need to go. Others stock shelves in the gift shop and assist customers in finding the perfect gift for a new mom or friend recovering from surgery.

“Volunteers help with a variety of non-medical jobs at the hospital,” explains Anne Shannon, the volunteer manager at affiliate Ocala Health in Ocala, Florida. Shannon oversees 143 volunteers who donate time at Ocala Health’s two hospitals and senior center.

“Volunteers are truly invaluable – the hospital couldn’t run smoothly without their support.” – Anne Shannon, volunteer manager at affiliate Ocala Health in Ocala, Florida

“Volunteers answer phones, visit with patients, give directions, escort patients and visitors, deliver mail and newspapers, restock supply closets, and so much more. They are truly invaluable—the hospital couldn’t run as smoothly without their support,” Shannon adds.

No Job—or Patient—Too Small

Helen McKnight manages the gift shop at affiliate Osceola Regional Medical Center in Kissimmee, Florida along with her husband, Thomas. Prior to taking on that job, she had used her sewing talents to make special pillowcases for patients in the pediatric unit, stitching nearly 1,000 cases. She also made hair ribbons and superhero capes for the young patients.

Helen and Thomas McKnight manage the gift shop at affiliate Osceola Regional Medical Center in Kissimmee, Florida.

“It seems like a little thing, but for a child who has to stay in the hospital, that token can really brighten their day,” McKnight says.

Mark Holmgren, a volunteer at affiliate Medical City Dallas in Texas, agrees. Holmgren has been volunteering at the hospital since 2009, but he has taken on a special role in the past four years.

“Ho, ho, ho,” he says with a laugh. To the children at Medical City Dallas, Holmgren is Santa Claus.

“Being Santa is a lot of fun,” he says. “For a short period of time, I can bring joy and comfort to kids who are experiencing things no kid should ever have to experience.”

Mark Holmgren, a volunteer at Medical City Dallas in Texas has been volunteering at the hospital since 2009, taking on the special role as Santa Claus the past four years.

Holmgren attends holiday parties for the staff and patients at the hospital dressed as Santa and goes room-to-room to visit patients. One day each year, he also visits families with children in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

“It can be really hard,” he says. “I’ll go into a room and there will be a young mother sitting next to her tiny baby in an incubator. Sometimes I’ll take a photo crouched down next to the infant, and other times, the parents let me hold the baby for the Santa photo. I take my cues from the parents and from the child-life specialist who goes on the rounds with me. But these visits can really cheer up parents and even siblings of the infants in the NICU.”

While Holmgren isn’t paid in money, he says that making someone smile or visibly relax is better than a paycheck. “The hospital is stressful and can be a scary place. If I can do anything to change that for someone, then I get paid,” he says.

The Benefits of Volunteering

Many hospital volunteers are retirees who enjoy the social interaction and friendship that comes with volunteering. In addition to helping others, you meet people with shared interests. Volunteering can also improve mental health and may even help you live longer. Research published in BMC Public Health says that volunteers frequently report lower levels of depression, increased life satisfaction and enhanced well-being.

“Volunteering keeps me young, busy and active,” says McKnight, who has been volunteering for a dozen years, since retiring from her job at the switchboard of a Disney Resort hotel. “My father lived until he was 96 years old. He used to say that the way to stay young was to stay busy and not sit at home feeling sorry for yourself. So that’s what I made sure to do once I retired. Volunteering helps me meet new people and hear from others about new experiences.”

Become a Volunteer

Volunteers are a vital part of the hospital and can make a real difference in the lives of patients, their family members and even colleagues. If you’re interested in becoming a volunteer, visit your hospital’s website or call the information desk to learn how to apply.

Because volunteers work closely with patients, they are required to have a criminal background check and get an annual TB screening. You’ll also need to be vaccinated for flu, measles, chicken pox, tetanus, diphtheria and whopping cough. If that sounds like a lot of shots, keep in mind that some of these are combination vaccines.

Not sure which volunteer job is best for you? Hospitals offer multiple opportunities for individuals with different talents. Here’s a sampling of places to help (though hospital needs may vary):

  • Delivering mail and flowers to patient rooms
  • Providing clerical and office support
  • Visiting patients with pets (certification required)
  • Rocking babies in the NICU
  • Answering questions or visiting with families in the surgery waiting room
  • Giving directions and answering questions
    at the information desk