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Volunteers have always been important to Northwest Hospital. The men and women who gave the hospital its life did so without any thought of remuneration. Guilds and auxiliaries raised money with bake sales, bridge games, all-you-can-eat pancake breakfasts, teas and dinner dances, toy and card sales.

Their work done, all but the Northgate Guild disbanded after the hospital was built. And it wasn't until the early 1970s that volunteers would become important to the hospital's day-to-day operations. As Eleanor Giese recalled, she and two neighbors decided in 1963 that they were "tired of doing PTA work" and turned their attention to this new hospital. However, there were no volunteers working in the hospital, she said, except in the gift shop. "They didn't quite know what to do with us and they didn't quite trust us."

The in-hospital volunteers "floated around" for a while, putting together patient kits in central supply, delivering fruit juice to patients, working in the laundry. Later they were assigned to one department permanently, but, said Ms. Giese, "Some departments welcomed us and some were very skeptical."

That changed in 1973, when Susan Vukich joined the staff as director of volunteers.

She set to work establishing new guilds, some with a general purpose of raising money, some with a specific focus, such as the Speech and Hearing Center, Hospice Northwest, or the Childbirth Center.

Her biggest challenge, however, was to gain acceptance for the in-hospital volunteers. There were almost none on patient floors, and Ms. Vukich knew that they could be of tremendous benefit to nurses, bringing mail, water, and so on, so that the professionals could concentrate on nursing.

She convinced one head nurse to try volunteers. "The next thing I knew," Ms. Vukich said, "a head nurse from another department was saying, 'How come [she] has volunteers down there and I don't have any?!'"

Ms. Vukich makes it easy for managers and medical staff to accept her volunteer staff. She approaches "hiring" volunteers the same way any manager would approach hiring staff (in fact, they are as often called "unpaid staff" as "volunteers"). She interviews them just as carefully and matches their skills to the needs of various hospital departments. "There isn't a manager in the organization that I can't go to and talk over a volunteer placement with," she said, "and that's pretty unique."

The result is one of the best volunteer organizations in the country. Ms. Vukich's work in national professional organizations has acquainted her with hundreds of other hospitals' volunteer efforts. While they struggle to recruit volunteers, "I've never had to advertise for volunteers," she said. "It's the place to volunteer if you live in the North End. I have a waiting list in some areas."

Volunteers of all ages form an important link between the hospital and the community. Some are retirees who just aren't ready to stop giving; some have been patients themselves, or someone close to them was. "People come here shattered over the death of somebody in their family," said Ms. Giese, "but they have been moved by the kindness here and they've said, 'I've decided to come back here and volunteer."

Northwest's volunteer program also helps people get a taste of what a career in medicine might be like. Although volunteers don't start with the expectation that someday they'll be employees, a fair number of them do go on to careers in medicine or take full-time positions that arise in the departments in which they work.

For some, volunteering is part of getting back into life after an injury or illness. It's a safe, rewarding way for people to test their skills, stamina, and dependability. Department managers are very cooperative in giving these people a chance, Ms. Vukich said.

"Volunteers are no longer the little old lady in tennis shoes who delivers flowers," Ms. Vukich remarked. They work on patient floors, in the print shop, in accounting, public relations, data processing, any number of community outreach programs, the child care center, the hospice.

In fact, Hospice Northwest represents one very important contribution volunteers make to the hospital: staffing pilot programs. Volunteers allow the hospital to try out new ideas with a maximum of expertise and a minimum of cost. If the idea fails, the volunteers move on to other assignments. If it succeeds, the hospital hires permanent staff, or more likely, as in the case of Hospice Northwest, puts paid staff and volunteers to work side-by-side.

Volunteers are in virtually every department at Northwest, and Ms. Vukich and managers continue to find new ways to use their talents. "I was so vehement," she said of her interview with Allan Davis 17 years ago. "I'd come to build a volunteer organization of the hospital. 'I'm a builder, not a maintenance person, and as soon as I am through building, I will go on and build in another area," she told him. "I'm still here and I'm still building!"

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