“No, that’s fine,” he says with a nervous half-smile “Thank you.”“There’s a couple of critical patients here right now, so it’ll be awhile before the doctors can see you,” she tells him.“Oh, that’s OK.”Now she’s smiling. “I’ll be back to see how you’re doing.”Reznick stops at a trauma bay, where an older woman lying on a wheeled gurney is hooked up to wall monitors. She says, “Can I get you anything?” to the patient’s daughter sitting close by.“No, I’m fine.”Next she gets an ice pack for a woman in a wheelchair, who explains how she fell and hurt her hip last night. And there are three more stops before she gets back to the reception work station in the emergency department’s lobby, where her shift partner, Pam Shea, is greeting a new patient.This kind of one-on-one care by the 45 women and seven men who currently make up “Angels of the ER” is one of the reasons why the going-on-11-years program received national recognition last month. It was just one of four hospital volunteer efforts in the nation to win the 2011 Hospital Award for Volunteer Excellence by the American Hospital Association.But, according to St. John’s emergency department physicians and officials, the Angels do a lot more. Comforting peopleDr. Russ Kino, the ER medical director who helped kick-start the innovative program more than a decade ago, believes it’s about time Angels of the ER was recognized. The whole idea was to make a visit to the emergency room a “more humane experience,” where the emotional needs of patients were met along with their critical healthcare needs.“We wanted to try to get at comforting people, which is not really what’s done in a typical emergency room,” he pointed out. “It’s mostly treating people and fixing them and dealing with the medical aspects of their care, which is great. But what we found is when we added this other dimension and started dealing with the emotional aspect and really caring more deeply and thoughtfully for people, then the level of satisfaction with everything else we were doing greatly increased.“And it’s exceeded my expectations,” he acknowledged. “It’s taken on a life of its own and continues to attract really stellar, high quality individuals. It’s not your average hospital volunteer program. It’s really remarkably different. And it’s so important to our care now that I don’t think any of the doctors or nurses of other staff in the emergency department could even imagine functioning a day without it. It’s completely altered how we work.”As an example, Dr. Kino recalls a family with a member who had died in the ER. He was dreading the disturbing task of telling them and knew that he didn’t have much time to do it because nearly every bed was filled with patients needing urgent attention.So he brought an Angel along with him into a private room with the family and was amazed at how she just took over, providing a much deeper and profound understanding of how to deal with the doleful situation than he ever imagined.“And that is sort of emblematic of what the Angels do for us,” he observed.A less extreme case comes from another overloaded day in St. John’s ER. The emergency care physician has a clear image of a volunteer named Ann Harter affectionately feeding a frail elderly woman who was not able to feed herself.“Really, what they do is in keeping with defining us as a faith-based hospital and being utterly different from a non-faith-based hospital,” Dr. Kino said. “Because there is that really profound human element of caring here, and that’s really hard to find at any hospital.“So it’s really in keeping with our philosophy of practice here, and it’s made a massive difference to a lot of people’s lives,” he added. “They are a complete bridge between, you know, the emotional and the practical care of the patient. And it’s really revolutionized care at St. John‘s. I mean, everybody is in awe of our Angels.”‘An integral part’The director of volunteer services at St. John’s Health Center readily agrees Angels of the ER is special.“I think we won because we have an extraordinary program,” said Grenda Pearlman. “It’s different from what other hospitals do. Our volunteers are an integral part of the emergency room team. They’re not just ancillary help; they are part of the team. And they provide a service that other hospitals don’t have in their emergency rooms.”She points out the rigorous training program ER volunteers go through, above and beyond the orientation for regular St. John’s volunteers. Candidates study a manual and must complete four four-hour “shadow” sessions, where they work with veteran volunteers during their shifts. The reason for all this is because of the heavy emotional, as well as physical, toll working in the high stress emergency department can have on an individual.“It’s definitely not for wallflowers ’cause you have to be willing to walk up to anybody and start a conversation,” Pearlman said. “And you can’t wait for people to come to you. You want to go to patients and ask them how they’re doing. So, definitely, having an outgoing personality is really important.“Also being nonjudgmental, compassionate. I mean, people come into the ER and they’re not in their right mind. They’re stressed out. They’re panicked and they may not act like they would normally in their everyday life. We don’t judge how people act when they come in. We just help them however we can. So not everybody could do this. No way.”Ann Harter — the volunteer who so impressed Dr. Kino — has been an Angel of the ER for almost 11 years, since the program began, in fact.“We are really the meeters and greeters,” said the retired nurse and former volunteer coordinator at St. John’s. “We are the people the patient first sees when they come into the hospital. And we help them understand and get through the process. We interact with the triage nurse to make sure the triage nurse sees a person who is maybe more of an emergency than somebody else. “We get them a wheelchair, get them a blanket. At the bedside, we do a lot of hand-holding and listening. We’re available to help with patients’ families and their loved ones, getting telephones for them, making sure that they’re able to communicate. And we’re very actively involved in the grieving process with a lot of families when they come into this room. All very simple types of comfort.”The challenges vary from shift to shift, according to Harter: a senior citizen who has dementia or a young mother with a very sick child; a middle-aged businessman who’s suicidal or a homeless psychotic right off the street. The only constant is the high energy, stressed-to-the-max, critical-care environment.But then there are the joys, too.“I don’t think there is one person in this unit who would say that they did not leave at the end of their four hours having received much more than they had given,” she reports. “I mean, you meet many, many people. But a lot of them are your friends in the community, and we see them at a very critical time in their lives. So I would say that this is our joy of giving back.” {gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2011/0527/olaangels/{/gallery}