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Three days a week, before the sun rises, Mary Lou Johnson quietly makes her way across the Community Regional Medical Center campus to a place that holds both painful and precious memories.
On her way to Community Regional’s oncology unit, Mary Lou stops to feed the stray cats in a nearby alley, then makes her way up to the 7th floor, saying hello to the staff members who have come to know and love this woman who has devoted so much of her time to their patients.
Mary Lou is a member of Community Medical Centers Service Alliance, a group that volunteers time and helps raise funds for Community Medical Centers. To date, she has logged more than 2,300 volunteer hours for the organization, working 10-hour shifts faithfully every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday. She started volunteering on the downtown campus more than 17 years ago after her only son, Chris, died there of leukemia.
Mary Lou’s eyes sparkle when she speaks of her son who graduated from California State University, Fresno at the top of his class in engineering. “He was an athlete and an accomplished musician; he had a wonderful girlfriend and was working on his masters degree when we found out he was sick,” she said. She tells of how devastated they were to find out that he had leukemia and how after a year, Chris eventually lost his fight to the disease.
It was during that year while he was being treated at Community, that she got well-acquainted with the oncology staff. “One of the nurses asked me if I wanted to volunteer,” she said. “I never thought I would ever work in a hospital. I thought I might just cry all the time seeing these people go through what they do, but now I just think about what it is that I can do to help them.”
Throughout the years volunteering, Mary Lou has worked in other parts of the hospital, but she now devotes her time exclusively in oncology. She is the only Service Alliance volunteer who is dedicated to a specific department, and is the only regular volunteer on the 7th floor.
Her days are busy running specimens to the lab and keeping the educational material up to date. “I do whatever it is they want me to do and help wherever I can,” she said. “I visit with families in the day room. Sometimes, I will lead a Bible study with a patient if they want to.”
It’s the interaction with the staff, patients and their families that fulfills her, and she says that it is rewarding to feel needed and appreciated. “I am accomplishing something that is lasting; I’m reaching out to people and really making a difference in their lives,” she said. “Sometimes it’s just little things that can make a big difference.”
Mary Lou enjoys decorating the unit for the holidays and is known for going all-out at Christmastime. She also takes pride in the calendars she makes for each of the patients, writing out the days of the month by hand and decorating them with cheerful stickers.
“When my son was here, he never knew what day it was, so I started making calendars for him,” she explained. “The others said they would like one too, so now I make one for every patient’s room because I find that it does help them to know where they are in their treatment cycle. The patients always say, ‘I love your calendars.’”
Mary Lou admits she has a soft spot for the young men she sees on the 7th Floor. “I still hear from one patient I call ‘my success story.’ He is a young man that I got to know while we where spending a lot of time here with my son. He calls or writes during the holidays to let me know he’s doing well.”
“It is an enriching thing for those who give, especially here. I have so many good memories working at Community. I belong here,” she said. “When you’ve been through what I have, losing a son to cancer, you truly understand what a patient and his family is going through. When a patient says that they feel like they’ve just been slammed in the chest and can’t breathe, well I know how that feels.”
Mary Lou and her husband, Marvin, also support the Community Medical Foundation financially through gifts over the years, as well as gifting the Bible that is used in the hospital chapel.
“I give to Community because the few times that I have been on the other side as a patient and the mother of a patient, the care has been marvelous,” she said. “The staff is always so caring. So I try to give that back to our patients and their families because of the quality of care here. We all do our best because we truly care.”
She recognizes that there is a shortage of volunteers in non-profit organizations across the board.
“Every organization is begging for help these days, with women so busy working and raising children, there aren’t as many volunteering,” she said. “I think wherever your heart is, is where you need to be. Because of my son, my heart is here at Community. It was hard coming back to the place where he died, but that’s where I’m supposed to be. They are very good to me here and I feel like I’m accomplishing something.”
“But the Service Alliance is now 51 years old. All us long-timers are all getting new hearts and lungs,” she added with a chuckle. “We need new young people to get involved.”
“Giving back, reaching out to people is such a healing thing for both the patient and for me. Volunteering isn’t something you can force somebody to do, you have to be moved by it like I am,” she said. “But you really get back more than what you put in.”
This story was reported special to MedWatch Today by Suzanne Crosina-Sahm. She can be reached at MedWatchToday@communitymedical.org.