When Janet Farrell ran into a former co-worker from Howard County General Hospital at a grocery store in 2002, they did more than exchange a friendly hello.
Judy Brown, senior vice president of nursing and patient care services at the hospital, told Farrell about a volunteer nurse program she was starting to better serve patients.
Farrell jumped on board.
"It sounded interesting," said Farrell, a staff nurse at the hospital from 1982 to 1999. "It's the best of both worlds. ... There's nothing we have to do in a set amount of time, so we're free to do whatever comes up."
Brown thought to start a volunteer nurse program, launched in the fall 2002, after reading about a Midwest hospital using a similar service that required active registered nurses who would provide counseling to patients.
However, she said that did not meet her vision of what she wanted Howard County General's program to be.
"Volunteers may no longer have nursing licenses, but that doesn't stop their desire to help," she said.
Brown decided to let active and inactive registered nurses participate in the program, which has 11 volunteers.
The volunteers typically work four hours a week, choosing a morning or afternoon shift, in the medical/surgical and immediate care units.
When the volunteers arrive for their shift, they check with the charge nurse to see if there are any patients who need extra attention that day.
"If she doesn't have any, we just go room to room and check with the patients to see how they are doing," said Irene Abeel, a volunteer nurse. "Sometimes you can tell they would like to talk, but they haven't really talked to anybody. Just ask `How are you today?' and that opens the door."
In accordance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, the volunteers are not given patients' diagnoses or other personal medical information. All they are given is the patient's name, Brown said.
She said the volunteers are there to listen to patients, not to serve as medical providers.
But the volunteers do more than just listen.
Farrell recalled a visiting a patient who was upset about not having someone to wash his clothes. She did his laundry.
"I've given back rubs, I've fed people," Farrell said. "I've called dietary for them and help them order their menus, and other times just sit and talk and listen."
Said Patty Preston, clinical program manager at the hospital: "They give a lot of attention to the patients. They are caring. I think the patients for the most part enjoy having someone come in to check on them."
Abeel recalled a time when she saw an elderly woman sitting with her unresponsive husband. She noticed that the woman was drinking juice and eating crackers.
Abeel asked her if she wanted some lunch, but the woman replied that she did not want to leave her husband. Abeel offered to sit with him until she got back.
"She was very thankful," Abeel said. "She was afraid he'd wake up and no one would be with him."
Abeel, a nurse since her 1957 graduation from Providence College of Nursing in Oakland, Calif., said full-time nurses often don't have as much time as they would like with patients. Volunteering gives her that opportunity.
"It's nice to give back to the career because I couldn't do it when I worked," she said.