April 25, 2022

Volunteering and lending a hand during the pandemic

Kaiser Permanente volunteers in the Northwest are making a difference by donating thousands of hours to caring for others.

Kaiser Permanente volunteer Wayne Cornelius and therapy dog Bentley visit Northwest clinics and hospitals to help staff and patients relieve stress and anxiety.

When the pandemic struck in March 2020, Kaiser Permanente was forced to pause its volunteer services program in Oregon and Southwest Washington, leaving the program with an uncertain future in uncertain times.

But only 3 months later, in June 2020, Kaiser Permanente retooled its programs in hospitals, clinics, and hospice to offer remote and some safe in-person options that gave volunteers new opportunities to serve health care workers, patients, and their families during a critical time

Overall, in 2021, 834 volunteers provided 33,938 hours of service. Many of them were new to the work and offered their time because they had lost their jobs or found themselves with more flexible schedules.

“We realized our volunteers were coming back because it was tough to be away,” said Randi Orth, Kaiser Permanente’s volunteer services program manager for clinics in Oregon and Southwest Washington. “People were isolated.”

And they felt compelled to serve heroic front-line workers who were risking their lives for their communities.

“They felt like, ‘We need to be there for our nurses. We need to be there for our doctors,’” Orth said.

A key role and a personal connection

In pre-COVID-19 times, volunteers served a variety of roles at clinics and hospitals, welcoming patients and their families, answering nonmedical questions, and giving directions. They pushed wheelchairs, restocked supplies, filled to-go bags for patients, and served as troubleshooters.

Hospice volunteers conducted home visits with terminally ill patients and their families. They offered respite care and support to the patient’s family and friends. Sometimes they simply sat with a patient, providing companionship at a difficult time.

“The personal connection you make with patients and their families during your visits is the heart of hospice volunteering,” said Olivia Lamb, a Kaiser Permanente retiree in Portland, who has volunteered since 2016.

“I’ve been privileged to listen to patients share their life stories, their fondest memories of loved ones, their experiences, and their regrets; or, sometimes, being there as a quiet reassuring presence.”

Providing critical support during the pandemic

But the pandemic changed everything. Many on-site volunteer services were altered to reflect health and safety protocols — or stopped altogether. At Kaiser Permanente Sunnyside and Westside medical centers, volunteers provided thousands of hours to keep the facilities safe by wiping down high-touch areas. For hospice volunteers, home visits and other in-person services were paused until COVID-19 restrictions eased.

“As a volunteer,” said Lamb, “not being able to make that personal connection with patients and their families during the pandemic was a profound loss.”

But, like many Kaiser Permanente volunteers, Lamb adapted. She visited with patients by phone and now provides office support for hospice and bereavement programs.

Pivoting to make a difference

New ways of thinking became the hallmark of the program in the wake of the ongoing pandemic.

Volunteers pivoted to support care delivery staff by distributing meals to boost morale among weary front-line workers. They provided peer support over the phone for patients with cancer who wanted to talk with someone who could understand their experience. And volunteers checked in on each other to provide mental health and general support during this difficult time, demonstrating true community within the program.

Perhaps the biggest triumph was the mass vaccination clinic at the Oregon Convention Center, where more than 350 Kaiser Permanente volunteers helped guide people through the process of getting their COVID-19 vaccinations.

“It’s really inspiring work,” said Orth. There’s been so much uncertainly and stress over the past 2 years. But it’s been so lovely to see all of our employees and volunteers work together during the pandemic.”

If you are interested in giving back, making connections, and caring for others, learn how to become a Kaiser Permanente volunteer.