Every Thursday, Marianne Klein arrives at UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica and receives her list. For about four hours she goes from room to room, bed to bed, checking to see whether patients are satisfied with their hospital experiences.
She asks them about their doctors, their food, their comfort. She finds out if anything can be done to improve their stays.
“Sometimes they just want to talk about their lives,” Klein said. “Sometimes I sing to them. Sometimes we laugh. Sometimes we cry together. Whatever it is.”
Klein doesn’t donate her time as a patient liaison to be recognized. She’s among the thousands of people who feel compelled to improve small corners of their communities — not only during National Volunteer Week, which wrapped up April 18, but also throughout the rest of the year.
“These efforts most frequently touch the lives of the poor, the young, the aged and the sick, but in the process the lives of all men and women are made richer,” reads Richard Nixon’s presidential proclamation, which formalized the initiative in 1974. “There are abundant opportunities for every concerned American to reap the rewards that come from helping others.”
For Klein, a longtime Santa Monica resident and Holocaust survivor who works as a writer and artist, volunteering gives her a sense of fulfillment and a chance to interact with others.
While living in Canada, Klein had worked as a unit coordinator and secretary in the audiology department of a Montreal hospital. So when her husband died about six years ago, and she had an urge to find a purpose — “to be useful to society,” she said — she decided to return to health care.
Each week Klein looks forward to her volunteer role at the local hospital, not only because she enjoys meeting new people but also because she feels she is doing what she can to help those in need of a morale boost.
Recently, she visited a patient who had served in the U.S. Marine Corps and wanted to talk about his time in the military.
“I saluted him like a soldier,” Klein said. “He smiled and said, ‘You made my day. I feel so much better since you came in here.'”
Sometimes, Klein said, patients ask to speak with a chaplain. Other times, they just want a glass of water. She’s found that her presence as a kind visitor is often enough to lift a patient’s spirits.
Volunteering is also therapeutic for Klein, who was a young girl during the Nazi invasion of Hungary. Her autobiography, “All the Pretty Shoes,” which she penned under her birth name, Marika Roth, is a harrowing account of how she escaped the horrors of World War II after seeing her father forced by Nazi soldiers onto a cattle car. Through later research, Klein discovered that her father and Anne Frank were sent to the same concentration camp.
Hospital patients don’t hear her story.
“I’m not there to talk about me — I’m there to talk about them, and that’s the focus,” she said. “I don’t want to make them feel worse by talking about the Holocaust. That’s not what I’m there for.”
When she’s not volunteering, Klein spends time writing screenplays and painting. She recently had her work on display at Edgemar Center for the Arts on Main Street, and she’s currently looking for another exhibit space.
But her role at the UCLA hospital, she said, offers her something that her professional life does not.
“I’m just there to make their lives more pleasant,” she said. “That’s the most satisfying thing I can do. Giving is also receiving. It makes me feel good when I do something that makes their life easier.”
Contact Jeff Goodman at 310-573-8351, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter.