by Whitney Weeks
photography by Dana Johnson
In the first few minutes of her volunteer shift, Janet Hessey coaxes a smile from a little boy with her offer of a toy car and receives a warm thank you from a mother to whom she's just brought a cup of apple juice. Every Thursday afternoon for nine years, the 73-year-old Hessey has shared her smile, her friendship and her time with patients and families seeking care in the Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt's Pediatric Emergency Department.
Her relationship with Children's Hospital actually began two years prior to her start as a volunteer. Her great-grandson Anthony Best was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor just four months after he was born and went through a number of surgeries as well as subsequent chemotherapy treatments to keep the tumor from growing. The family became quickly and intimately familiar with Children's Hospital. When Anthony was 2, Janet changed the nature of her relationship with the place by becoming a regular volunteer. Then, when Anthony was 8, he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma in his arm and shoulder.
"They helped us so much at Vanderbilt, they've done so much here," she says. "Over these years, we feel grateful that they've saved Anthony for us. And I'd just like to help other people here as a thank you."
Perhaps what makes her such an effective volunteer is her ability to relate to the people she's serving in the Pediatric Emergency Department.
"I understand what it's like to sit with a child for hours," she says. "You're alone, but you can't leave even for a second. You can't leave your baby. So I understand when I see a mother sitting alone with her baby that she might want to go to the bathroom, go get something to drink. And so I'll offer to sit with her child."
Another significant part of Janet's life - and what adds to her capability as a volunteer working with families - is her own family. Two children, four grandchildren who range in age from 19 to 35, and 7 great-grandchildren who range in age from 6 weeks to 11, are all important to her and an integral part of her daily life.
Every part of her work as a volunteer at Children's Hospital is important to her. She talks about the time she spent an entire volunteer shift holding an infant who'd arrived alone by LifeFlight, how she sat and rocked the unresponsive baby in a quiet room for those two hours, hoping and praying the baby would be okay. She also speaks with equal gravity about the importance of making sure that the toys she offers to children have been carefully disinfected between uses and that the volunteers' storeroom is always neat and tidy.
While Janet says everything she does is a thank you to the hospital she credits with giving her family additional time with Anthony, her commitment to service began long before Anthony's birth. She was raised in a family that considered others and how one might best help.
"When I was little, my mother did things for other people," Janet remembers. "Not through an organization or anything formal like that, but she somehow just knew who was in need, who in our town [of Tullahoma, Tenn.] needed clothes or food. She said time and again, ‘If you can do something for someone else, do.'"
According to Jeannie Temple in Volunteer Services at Children's Hospital, Janet has followed in her mother's footsteps by also doing for others.
"Since 1999, Janet has logged nearly 800 volunteer hours in the Emergency Department," Temple says. "I think she has a great personality. She's always upbeat, never down. She's always looking on the bright side. A lot of the families in the Emergency Department are stressed out, and for Janet to be down there with a smiling face, for her to be offering them things - a cup of juice, a movie, a toy - that can mean everything to them."
Janet has no plans to cease her good works anytime soon. Despite a bit of troublesome arthritis, she expects to continue bustling up and down the halls with her offering of smiles, toys and kind words for a long time to come.
"Sometimes there are three or four rooms in a row where no one wants anything, so I'll go clean toys or straighten up our storage room. Other times, I don't have time to catch my breath. That's what I like about it. It's never the same," Janet says with a smile.
© 2016 Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt