First Person Singular: June Breen, Gift shop volunteer/manager, Virginia Hospital Center, Arlington

(Allison Dinner)
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Sunday, March 1, 2009

People are here because they're hurting, not just physically but mentally. Someone they love is in pain. They need to be held. You know, they say that when we're ill, we revert to our childhood, but I don't buy that. We all need to be held no matter what age we are when we're suffering. And you do see the suffering in their faces when they come in the gift shop.

Even though I'm a volunteer now, I still respond like the nurse I was for so many years -- at this same hospital. When I was training new nurses, I'd tell them, "Every time you walk into a patient's room, you have to look for clues and ask yourself, 'What's wrong with this picture?' " Her bed may be made, all the covers straight, and her eyes closed like she's sleeping peacefully, but does her face look like she's been crying? That's what you respond to, the unspoken pain.

In the gift shop, it's the worried faces. They come in, they're anxious and they kind of wander around. I'll try to make eye contact, smile, just to let them know I'm there. "My mother is upstairs," is usually how the conversation starts. That's how they'll let me in. Once I show any small act of kindness, it just all comes out. Their worries are so built-up that it feels good to let it go.

Most of the women in the shop who volunteer are single; many are widowed. We're just trying to find our slot to fill in life now that we're retired. We all just want to be a part of something bigger, you know. I feel that way in the shop; I feel needed. It was difficult in the beginning. When I retired from nursing in 1991, the plan was for my husband to retire, too. But that never came through because he died that year. So, I came back to the people I knew here, as a volunteer. The thought was "just stay as busy as you can."

It's not as if I wake up every morning and say, "I'm going to go out and help everyone I meet today." I doubt you'd ever have any success if that was your big plan. You smile when you make eye contact. You back off when they need their space. People usually want to talk if they know someone will just listen. We all just want to connect.

Interview by Amanda Long


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