volunteers Ken Wilger (from left), Vicky Hagan, David Kilroy, Irene Scott, Lee Gibbons, Albert Schaef, Mary Sproat, JC Palmer, Ruth Plasket, Joe Ed Smith & Martha Bright, are all age 80 and older. They push wheelchairs at WellStar Kennestone Hospital in Marietta. Photo by Phil Skinner
Photo: Phil Skinner
Photo: Phil Skinner

These octogenarian volunteers are the real ‘hospital heroes’

I retired young, and, at the age of 60, I am volunteering at WellStar hospitals, pushing patients out in wheelchairs. Surprisingly, this is a very exciting job and quite active. On a four-hour shift, I can walk 2 to 4 miles and meet all kinds of people.

The patients are always glad to see me because they are leaving the hospital. What is so interesting is we get to see a small glimpse into their lives. Sometimes they tell us why they were in the hospital, and sometimes they don’t. We never ask to respect their privacy. Yet, we see a huge part of their lives just pushing that wheelchair up to their car.

We help them into nice cars like Lexuses and Jaguars, and we also load them into beaters, too — the kind of car that, when you open the door, trash falls out on the ground or it reeks of cigarettes overflowing in an ashtray.

I have pushed out a mom who gave her baby up for adoption right in front of me. I took her to her car that had two adorable little children waiting on her.

I have pushed out a police officer who had been shot. As we came down the corridor, there were 20 police officers lining the halls to cheer him on. At the end was his wife whose face was filled with love and worry.

It was an honor to be a part of both.

The one thing that I have really learned is that pushing wheelchairs seems to keep you young. When I volunteer, I interact with maybe 20 other volunteers.

Ten of the 20 people I work around are over 80. Four of them are over 85.

Let that sink in for a minute.

They are working just like me, and walking up to 4 miles and pushing patients up to 250 pounds. Some answer phones or help organize the literature. They show up every week and make many lives better, including their own.

Some of them have had cancer. Some of them face illnesses. Yet for some reason, in their minds, they are young enough to push a wheelchair. Most of the time their patients will be 20 or 30 years younger than they are. So, could aging be mostly mental? Does being part of a team give you purpose?

These people are the real hospital heroes. I take my hat off to these amazing octogenarians:

Mary Sproat is on her feet working in the gift shop that raises money for the hospital. She also knits caps that we give to newborns and sews scrub hats for hospital personnel to purchase. She supplies all her own materials. She also works all of the hospital blood drives. Mary has been a hospital volunteer for more than 15 years.

Irene Scott pushes wheelchairs. She is maybe 5 feet tall with twinkly blue eyes. She still works at Sears three to five days a week and makes sure to volunteer at the hospital on her day off. She says her real job is being one of God’s prayer warriors. She has 17 great-grandchildren and one great, great-grandchild. Someone needs to study this woman as she is a real “superwoman.”

— Jo Ed Smith pushes chairs and oversees the recruiting of volunteers. A charming Southern gentleman, he asks where else would you find such a wide array of people in one spot? Rich and poor, young and old, all nationalities, all religions, all races. The social benefit is exhilarating, he says.

— Lee Gibbons works in the gift shop and pushes wheelchairs. She has been volunteering here for 17 years. After working her shift at WellStar, she volunteers at her church the same evening, working five to eight hours along with her husband John. This woman just oozes kindness. She has five great-grandkids.

— Albert Schaef answers the busy phone three days a week when he isn’t jet-setting back and forth to Germany several times a year. He charms all the women on the phone and in person.

— Ruth Plasket and Martha Bright have been working together for years on the maternity ward. They stuff folders with materials for all the new moms to read. Martha says it beats staying at home and cleaning. They are always fun to eat with at lunch.

— J.C. Palmer works at the cancer center pushing wheelchairs. He still golfs pretty much every week, and you will not find a more graceful and kind man with such a smooth Southern voice. He has been volunteering for more than 15 years.

— Ken Wilber pushes patients in wheelchairs. He is another handsome guy. He has been volunteering for 10 years and has three great-grandkids.

David Kilroy has been volunteering at Kennestone for five years. He says that volunteering helps him physically and mentally and that we all need to volunteer and try to help those in need. He recently celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary and has two children and three grandchildren.

So, do they live longer, more productive and satisfying lives because they volunteer? Do they all just have big hearts? Is the social and physical routine keeping them fit longer?

Does pushing a wheelchair keep you out of one? I think it helps. These 10 people inspire me with their youthful minds and show me that you can be productive and make a difference at any age, as long as you keep a young mind and stay active.

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