My Turn: Life as a Hospital Volunteer

When Julia Roberts was pregnant with her twins, it was widely reported that she was a patient at my local hospital in Los Angeles. "Why don't you sneak in there as a volunteer and slip her your manuscript?" cracked my agent, who, at the time, was pitching one of my novels to Hollywood. I laughed, hung up the phone and went back to my computer.

I'd been trying for weeks to come up with an idea for my next book. And then suddenly the idea came: Why not write about a celebrity reporter who signs up as a hospital volunteer so she can gain access to a reclusive movie star? The heroine would be motivated totally by her career until she learns that in helping others, we help ourselves. Sounded like a winning premise for a romantic comedy with an uplifting message and a plot where high jinks could ensue.

How could I miss? But first, there was the matter of research. If I wanted to make my heroine's travails realistic, I'd have to observe hospital volunteers myself, see what it is they actually do. I headed over to my nearby hospital and asked the director of volunteers if I might hang around for a day or two, "Just to research my story." Her answer? "No. If you really want to see what it's like to be a volunteer, you should become one."

Become a volunteer? Well, I did admire those who ladled soup to the homeless and all that, but work at a hospital? I wasn't wild about being in close proximity to people with germs. And weren't hospital volunteers either teenaged candy stripers or retired seniors? I was neither. I was a writer in search of a story, like my heroine.

"We'll need a commitment of at least six months," she continued. "That means a four-hour shift every week. You won't regret it, Jane. When you lift a patient's spirits, you lift your own."

Six months? I'll just skip the research, I thought, then reminded myself that I did need to spend quality time at the hospital if I wanted to write credibly about my heroine's journey. I could afford to leave my computer once a week for a few months, couldn't I? And there was always Purell for the germs.

I signed up, was given my uniform and ID badge, and reported for duty. My "job" was to wheel a magazine cart throughout the large facility, offering patients everything from People to Smithsonian and, in the process, be a shoulder to lean on.

My first few shifts were harrowing. I was terrified of entering rooms where heart monitors beeped and breathing tubes whooshed. I was convinced I'd stumble into a Code Blue and end up killing somebody. But there were also humorous moments: when a psych patient in restraints proposed marriage to me; when a woman delirious on morphine accused me of being her husband's ex-wife.

Initially, my focus was on my novel. And then a funny thing happened: I stopped researching and starting realizing that I might actually be making a difference in people's lives. A woman who'd just been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer thanked me for brushing her hair and applying her lipstick. A kid who'd been rendered a paraplegic after a gunshot wound told me that the issues of Sports Illustrated I brought him were the high point of each week. A man who was wasting away from AIDS deemed me his "angel," simply because I took twenty minutes to transcribe the letter he dictated to his mother.

I began to look forward to my shifts and to resent the hours I spent at the computer. My priorities were changing. I was changing. I felt appreciated at the hospital and grateful that I'd been given the opportunity to provide any sort of comfort and support to those with medical problems. Friends would ask, "Isn't it depressing at that place?" "On the contrary," I'd say and mean it.

Still, I had much to learn from the volunteers who'd been there for years. Some specialized in spiritual counseling. Some played musical instruments. Some took charge of the always-hectic emergency room. You could be one of them. Men and women of all ages and backgrounds are welcome and everyone can make a contribution; our nurses are shorthanded and our health care system is overwhelmed. Now's the time to jump in, America.

Long after finishing my book, I continue to volunteer. I moved to Santa Barbara and now spend four hours a week at the hospital there. My husband volunteers too. He works in the critical care unit, restocking dressing carts, manning the phone, bringing families news of their loved ones. Recently, a nurse asked him to make an urgent run to the blood bank and he said hesitantly, "But I'm just a volunteer." She shook her head at him. "Just a volunteer? We couldn't do any of this without you."

Heller lives in Santa Barbara, Calif.