Thirty years ago, Susanna Patterson joined the Emergency Medical Services squad of the volunteer fire department in Port Washington, NY. Little did she know that would lead to a career in health care and a lifelong commitment to volunteering.
“I saw patients at their worst and would wonder whatever happened to them after I handed them over to the hospital,” Susanna says. “Now, I regularly see patients who -- after lengthy hospital stays – are on the road to recovery. Watching them regain their physical strength and emotional faculties uplifts me and transforms my days.”
Susanna herself was a patient at Fairview’s St. John’s, St. Joseph’s, and Bethesda hospitals for a series of serious illnesses. In January 2017, she began volunteering at Bethesda, one of only two long-term acute care specialty hospitals in Minnesota.
“I know what it’s like to be the patient and to have loved ones sitting and worrying about me,” she says. “My experience gave me a unique perspective on what they’re going through. And to be perfectly honest, it’s often the family that suffers even more than the patient.”
Susanna spends each Monday with Bethesda patients, who are typically in the hospital for months.
“My patients have illnesses or injuries that sometimes carry lifelong effects,” Susanna says. “Their medical needs are complex, but many things they want or need are the same as patients anywhere — like being heard and having company.”
Heidi Shannon, Volunteer Services Manager, says Susanna has an innate radar for what will create an exceptional experience for anyone she meets.
“She treats people with compassion and integrity and consistently looks for ways to improve a situation,” Heidi says. “Susanna always finds a way to make that special human connection that helps to lighten everyone’s load.”
When Susanna trains new volunteers, she counsels them to be themselves.
“We volunteers need to be able to come in relaxed and friendly, dedicated to reducing fears and creating community. What most patients are looking for is simply someone who has time to spend with them and listen to their concerns.”
Susanna’s presence, and the stories she tells, matter.
For example, a patient being tube fed was frustrated at his inability to consume enough calories. Susanna shared her own experience with poor appetite, her resistance to her doctor’s daily exhortation that she had to eat, and how she finally decided she’d have to make the effort — or fail to recover. With continued gentle encouragement from Susanna and the staff, the patient gradually worked his way up to the prescribed calorie count.
Remembering what it was like being unable to speak when she was in the ICU, Susanna made sure to “converse” with a non-verbal brain injury patient at Bethesda over several weeks. She just wanted to let the woman know that she was not alone. Her family told Susanna they were so grateful someone came to engage with their loved one when they couldn’t be there.
“I can’t explain the feeling I got knowing I comforted them,” Susanna says. “Slowly, I watched my patient progress: opening her eyes, then moving her limbs, attempting to speak. Now she is speaking understandably, going to physical therapy, and sitting up in a wheelchair. To me, this represents nothing short of a series of small miracles!”
Susanna says she gets back more than she gives: “Volunteering at Bethesda is perfect for me, and I will do it until my last breath.”
To learn about Fairview volunteer opportunities, please visit https://www.fairview.org/volunteering.