Since 1956, thousands of residents from the communities surrounding the hospital have served as volunteers. This year’s staff of 130 volunteers gathered on April 19 to celebrate the efforts of those who served before them, including Keller, as well as those who will do so in the years to come.
Keller, 67, said she first signed up to be a volunteer on June 30, 1998, after dropping her two daughters off at the elementary school across the street.
“I had time on my hands, and thought, why not go and volunteer at the hospital?” she recalled.
Whether she’s talking with patients and nurses in the hospital’s cardiac unit or reading for newborns in neonatal care, Keller said that the most rewarding part of the job is spending time with the patients.
“You start with one good feeling, and it just grows exponentially,” she said. “Sometimes it helps to see a familiar face. I’m not there taking blood pressure or giving medicine. I’m there keeping them company … I always joke it keeps me off the streets and out of the mall. But I don’t want to be anywhere else. This is where I want to be.”
Keller is the captain of the volunteer office on Tuesday and Thursday mornings and was a part of the hospital’s compassionate listener program, which, she said, is facilitated by the spiritual care department.
“It’s really just helping run the office so the director can get her work done,” she said. “It used to be, people would come in and ask about volunteering. Now everything is online.”
Over the years she has volunteered, she has received the Town of Hempstead Annual Volunteer Recognition Award, South Nassau’s Five Star Adelaide Cromwell Memorial Award, and the Long Island Business News Healthcare Hero Volunteer Award.
Before the pandemic, Keller spent 25 and 30 hours a week at the hospital. When she returned after the pandemic eased, her weekly hours were reduced to 20 or so.
“Sometimes it’s a tough day,” she said. “The hardest part of the job is when you lose a patient. When you have a connection with someone and that bed isn’t occupied, and someone wasn’t discharged the way you thought they would (be). It doesn’t happen that often. But even when you do lose somebody, there are people you never forget.”
She remembered being urged not to get too close to a patient on the Oncology floor named Carol, who was expected to live only six months. “I was blessed to know her for 18 months,” Keller said. “We got to be very close. She will always have a special place in my heart. I used to have her voicemail saved on my phone. I would play it because I wanted to hear her voice.”
Having been a patient at South Nassau herself, Keller said she had seen its operations from both sides, which is one of the reasons she feels a connection to the patients.
“I used to tell them that ‘you and I could switch places in a flash,’” Keller said. “Wouldn’t I want someone to spend time with me? Whether it’s just 30 seconds or three hours?”
Keller, who has been married to her husband, Bob, for 43 years, has a master’s degree in deafness rehabilitation. Although she said she is not fluent in American Sign Language, she worked with the Oceanside Department of Community Activities to teach an extracurricular course on Saturdays for those interested in learning about signing, with the hope they would be interested in studying ASL further.
She said that while she is not an accomplished signer, at one time she was able to use what she had learned to bridge the gap between the nurses and deaf patients.
Keller has not only come to know many patients personally, but also gone out of her way to make their stay as comfortable as possible by supplying them with whatever they might want that she could acquire — as long as it was legal.
“I try to tell people, I get a paycheck, but it’s not in American currency,” she said. “I’m very wealthy. It may not be reflected in my bank account, but that’s not my value. I’m really fortunate. I don’t have to worry about where my next meal is coming from. I can afford to do this. I have the time, and this is what I want to do.”