Volume 75, Number 48 | April 19 - 25 2006

A Salute To Volunteers

A special Villager supplement

Villager photo by Elisabeth Robert

Sister Patricia Cusack, director of St. Vincent’s Volunteer Department

Handling hundreds of volunteers at St. Vincent’s

By Albert Amateau

Volunteers at St. Vincent’s hospital, one of Manhattan’s major health centers and an important Village institution, have a tradition of faithful dedication and serious service. At the recent annual volunteer awards ceremony, St. Vincent’s honored volunteers who logged as many as 10,000 hours last year. The honorees included dozens of new volunteers and two who have been volunteers for 55 years and are still going strong.

“We have close to 400 volunteers,” said Sister Patricia Cusack, director of St. Vincent’s Volunteer Department. “We get them from all five boroughs and even some from the tristate area.”

Volunteers serve in the hospital’s nearly 50 departments and programs and all make a six-month commitment.
“They become an extension of the staff and each department has to be able to rely on them,” Cusack said, by way of explaining the time commitment. Each department or program has from one to 10 or more volunteers who have specific duties including clerical, research assistance, recreation, education, library work, various nonmedical therapies and acting as patient representatives.

Cusack, who has a doctorate degree in education from Columbia University, has to keep close tabs on where and when the volunteers are on duty — especially since New York State tightened requirements for hospital volunteers since the 2001 World Trade Center attack.

“They can’t just roam around and do whatever they want,” she said. “They get a general orientation on being volunteers and an orientation from the supervisors of the departments where they want to work,” she added.

Of course, volunteers are not permitted to provide health services or counseling even if they are professionally qualified. A volunteer with a nurse’s license, for example, would not be permitted under state regulations to act as a nurse.

“He or she could not take vital signs or counsel a patient,” Cusack noted.

Nevertheless, being a volunteer involves an almost professional commitment and discipline.

One volunteer program, the Prehealth Rotation Program, engages about 14 high school students between the ages of 16 — the youngest allowed under state regulations — and 18 who think they would like to be health professionals but don’t quite know where they would best fit in.

“This program lets them know about the field and really helps them when they apply for professional schools,” Cusack said.

A Prehealth Rotation volunteer signs on for a two-year term of service and rotates among various departments including cardiology, child psychology, obstetrics/gynecology, operating room, patient access and transportation, pediatrics, neurology, urology and special assignments.

At the end of a two-year rotation, a teenager has a basic grounding in health services and has given valuable service to St. Vincent’s health care professionals.

“One Prehealth Rotation volunteer from the Lab School in Chelsea joined the program two years ago,” Cusack said. “She came every week without fail and now she’s graduating in May — she’s been accepted at the Mt. St. Vincent Nursing School,” Cusack proudly noted.

Cusack was an educator before coming to St. Vincent’s. She began her career as a Montessori teacher in Columbus, Ohio, continued as an education counselor and eventually became assistant superintendent of schools in Columbus. She took a leave of absence in 1986 and came to New York to pursue a doctorate degree at Columbia University.

“I fully intended to go back to the heartland — but you know what happened — I got hooked,” she said. “I fell in love with New York City and with the Village.”

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