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(photo by Brandon Wise)

 

MID-CITY — Whatever your beliefs, everyone can agree that Saint John’s has Angels in the emergency room.

That fact was nationally recognized April 11 when the American Hospital Association awarded the Angels of the ER volunteer program the 2011 award for Volunteer Excellence at an awards breakfast in Washington, D.C.

Ann Harter, former volunteer coordinator of the Angels, was there to accept the award.

“It was very exciting,” Harter said. “People were so interested in such an unusual program and asked us for information afterwards.”

The Angels are a group of 50 men and women, aged 21 and over, that work in concert with emergency room staff to ensure patients get the utmost attention and care when they arrive at Saint John’s.

What makes the Angels program unique is how completely the volunteers are integrated into the fabric of the high-pressure environment of the ER.

They work in four-hour shifts from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week, greeting patients at the door and then checking in at bedsides every 15 to 20 minutes, ferrying blankets, pillows or grabbing a nurse when necessary.

“All the stuff the medical staff doesn’t have time to do,” explained Janie Crane, current Angels coordinator.

ER Medical Director Dr. Russ Kino created the program 10 years ago to address rising dissatisfaction amongst patients in the ER.

“It was very typical of all emergency rooms within the last 10 or 15 years,” Harter said. “We had increased waiting times, and satisfaction has decreased. It was an ongoing situation that everybody has to work with.”

Kino realized that as the emergency department got busier, it still lacked one thing that every other department in the hospital enjoyed — a corps of volunteers to take some of the pressure off of the trained medical staff.

He attended a meeting of the Irene Dunne Guild, a philanthropic group aimed at supporting the hospital, and the guild got to work developing the program.

“It was a group effort in on-the-job training,” Harter said. “We didn’t know what to do, we were just going into the hospital and figuring out what they needed.”

A decade later, half of the original volunteers remain, and through their efforts the Angels have a dedicated training manual and a waiting list of people trying to break into the program.

Prospective volunteers must go through the Saint John’s volunteer program, which consists of a background and health check, an interview process and orientation. Then, they may apply to join the Angels.

That leads to another three-hour training to get through the manual, and a tour of the ER. Even still, they have a six-month probationary period to make sure the new volunteers are a good fit for the more experienced Angels.

Although the volunteers cannot participate in direct medical care, they deal with the emotional and physical pain of their patients, and need to support each other through a tough shift.

Holding the hand of a solitary elderly woman to calm her as nurses took a blood sample. Watching family or friends unexpectedly arrive at the door, sick or injured.

The Angels rely on each other and their relationship with staff to walk away from a day at the hospital positive, secure in the knowledge that today, they helped someone.

“With those factors, we’re able to handle the trauma fairly well,” Harter said. “That’s not to say we are not affected.”

And it’s that comradeship that made Angels an award-winning program.

“Every time I come to the emergency department, I make a difference,” Crane said. “I know every time I come out, something good has happened during the day.”

ashley@www.smdp.com

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