“Good Morning, Gray Ladies.”
As Teddy Hartsell spins around in her swivel chair and pulls the handset of the beige push button phone to her ear, all conversation stops in the cramped third floor office. She turns to a computer on her right and quickly pulls up a list of names and room numbers.
“Well, I guess that’s me,” says Patty Ipock, one of a dozen identically dressed volunteers scattered about the room. She rises from her seat and guides a wheelchair from a back corner out into the brightly lit hallway adjacent to a row of elevators.
“I’ll be back,” she calls over her shoulder, as the phone begins ringing again.
“There will be times when that phone is ringing off the hook and there'll be nobody in here and the orders will be lined up on the table,” says Thomas Barry, as he checks a room number on the computer before heading out the door.
As the room grows quiet again, the conversation picks up, the laughter resumes, and the stories begin, stories of disaster, disease and, occasionally, an Elks Club yard sale.
For the temporary residents housed above and below them, the new day will be filled with fear or boredom, physical pain or the joy of new life. But for the Gray Ladies (and Lads) of CarolinaEast Medical Center, it’s just another Thursday morning.
The Gray Ladies
The Gray Ladies began as American Red Cross volunteers who worked in hospitals and private homes during World War II. They provided personal, non-medical services to sick, injured or disabled patients. They also wrote letters, read, tutored and shopped for patients, and served as guides to visitors and as hostesses in hospital recreation rooms and at information desks.
Gray Ladies, who were named for the color of their dresses, later joined forces with other Red Cross workers in caring for disaster victims.
The volunteers were also there at the very beginning of what is now CarolinaEast Medical Center. In 1963, when the facility opened, it was a Gray Lady who wheeled the first patient into the brand new county hospital. Male volunteers, known as Gray Lads, began serving the hospital in the mid-1990s.
Today, the Gray Ladies and Lads play a critical role in making sure patients arrive where they need to be to receive care. In addition to transporting patients, the volunteers are also responsible for mail and flower delivery, equipment transportation and running errands for staff.
The CarolinaEast Health System Gray Ladies and Lads are the last civilian hospital-based group of Red Cross volunteers in North Carolina.
“When I first got here, the nurse supervisor told us to do anything we felt comfortable doing, that we’d been trained to do that the nurses asked of us,” explains Lummie Faulkenberry, who at age 90 is the longest serving volunteer at the hospital.
Faulkenberry began volunteering as a Gray Lady in 1967.
“I was in my 40s when I started. The reason I got interested in the Gray Ladies is I needed something to do when my kids were in school,” she recalls.
Faulkenberry can remember a time when she and her fellow volunteers were expected to provide a far wider range of services than they do today.
“There’s was a time when we carried the bodies down to the morgue,” she says, a smile playing across her still youthful features.
Faulkenberry, Ipock, and Hartsell, the three most senior volunteers on the Thursday morning shift, have a combined 125 years of service at the hospital.
“The good thing is I’ve been here so long that as the hospital changed I was able to learn as it went along,” notes Faulkenberry. “I know every square inch of this place.”
Hartsell began volunteering at the hospital in 1976.
“I can remember when we had to scour the hospital looking for wheelchairs,” she says. “Back then they would page us, they would come on the intercom and say ‘Gray Lady to room so and so.’”
Ipock says her volunteer years date back to a time well before the hyper-organized computer age.
“I worked on Sunday for years before they ever started keeping records,” she comments. “Let’s just say things were a little looser back then.”
In addition to their other duties, the Gray Ladies and Lads also occasionally witness wills for patients.
“We’re not allowed to take patients on stretchers anymore,” says Hartsell, with a hint of disappointment. “But we get a turkey and a ham every year for volunteering and we get a free lunch on our birthdays. How can you beat that?”
Waiting for the call
The volunteers on the Thursday morning shift begin filing into the hospital around 7:30 in the morning. Dressed in their official uniform of white shirts, blue vests, khaki pants and, most importantly, comfortable shoes, they sign in at the volunteer desk and make their way to the Gray Ladies and Lads office two floors up.
And then the waiting begins.
The first call of the morning, a patient discharge, is handled by Ipock.
With her white streaked hair, glasses and hoop earrings, she rushes down the hospital’s hallways with a speed and finesse that belies her years.
“I like a busy day,” she says. “I’m just someone who likes to keep going.”
Backing an oversized wheelchair into an elevator (you always back the patients in so they don’t become nauseous, she explains), Ipock dispenses a bit of wisdom she’s learned over her years at the hospital.
“When I go to transport a patient, I take the bigger wheelchair so I can avoid the embarrassment of someone not fitting in the chair,” she explains. “I learned that the hard way.”
After she sees her patient safely off from the pickup area at the hospital’s entrance, she places a slip into the discharge box in the lobby and takes the wheelchair back to the office, where it’s wiped down and sanitized.
She arrives back on the third floor just as Roland Hoekman, an Ohio native who moved to New Bern two years ago, is headed out on a call.
“I did hospice for quite a while, but I wanted to travel, and with hospice you could be tied down for up to six months,” says Hoekman, explaining his decision to join the Gray Lad volunteers.
Hoekman, the class clown of the Thursday morning shift, specializes in putting smiles on the faces of patients who may have little reason for mirth.
“You’re chariot has arrived,” he calls out, as he helps a glum-faced middle aged man dressed only in a green hospital gown out of bed.
As he pushes the patient to the Nuclear Medicine ward for a CAT scan, Hoekman quips, “We need to cover you up so the nurses don’t get too excited.”
“Yeah,” says the man, his mood noticeably brighter, “modesty is my biggest concern.”
The patients he sees each week are often in pain, says Hoekman, a reality that he and his fellow volunteers have to be cognizant of during their rounds.
“A lot of the time, even if you have a bad experience with a patient, it’s not a bad experience for you because the people don't mean it towards you. They’re hurting and I know when I’m hurting I get really tired and crabby,” he says. “They’re laying in a room where people are poking and prodding and waking them up in the middle of the night. I don't think any of us take that as a personal affront, because we know these people wouldn't be here if there wasn't something wrong.”
“What we say in here stays in here,” says Ipock, relaxing in the office after returning from another discharge call.
It’s a rare moment when no volunteers are out on calls, and, while the phone sits silent, they fall into storytelling mode, recounting some of their most memorable exploits.
Hoekman speaks about his days as an Angel Flights volunteer, when he provided free air transportation for patients in need of medical treatment far from home.
“One kid I remember, his brain had formed outside of his skull. But he was just this great little guy, the happiest kid in the world,” recalls Hoekman.
He also speaks about a patient who had been severely burned in a trailer fire.
“His skin looked like melted plastic but he didn't let it hinder him at all, he had all kinds of friends at school,” he explains.
The story reminds Hartsell of a painful episode from her childhood.
“I was burnt on my feet; a pot of scalding water exploded. When my daddy took my shoes off, the skin came right off with ‘em. The doctor put peanut butter on my feet, which is probably one of the worst things he could have done,” she says.
Joining the regular volunteers are three high school students, Marissa Smith, Gracie Lawrence and Mandy Zheng, who have been shadowing the Gray Ladies and Lads.
“These girls have been getting educated in a lot of things, life experiences,” jokes Hartsell.
“It’s been a very, very good experience,” offers Zheng. “Just the satisfaction you get from helping others.”
“It’s nice hearing their stories,” says Smith, “and seeing the patient's smile.”
While they wait for the next call, Julia McGriff, a Gray Lady volunteer who has been sidelined recently due to health problems, stops by to chat.
“They want me to get a pacemaker,” she says, “But I just don't know.”
After McGriff leaves, her fellow volunteers discuss whether she’ll eventually return to their fold.
“She’s also caring for a special needs son and a mother with dementia,” says Barry, who volunteers alongside his wife, Frances. “That’s a very dedicated lady.”
“The secret of the volunteers,” offers Faulkenberry, “is we stand by each other through sickness or whatever. It’s like a family.”
Terry Jessip, a volunteer for the hospital’s emergency department, knows what truly keeps the Gray Ladies and Lads coming back week after week.
“I’ve watched the team here wheelchair that mama with that brand new baby when they are being discharged, and these are great grandmas and grandpas here, and you watch them take that mom and the cart with the flowers and the luggage and the smile on their faces, and it’s just priceless.”
As he wheels an 8-pound, 13-ounce newborn and his mother down to Labor and Delivery, Barry smiles and offers congratulations to the parents. Following behind with the luggage cart, his wife dodges “It’s a Boy!” balloons and tries to keep a set of flower vases upright.
“Yeah, this is always the best part of the day,” says Barry. “Seeing a new life going out into the world and then years later they come back as a young adult, and healthy.”
“I think the main reason people do this is for the satisfaction,” continues Barry. “Part of the job is not just pushing that wheelchair. It’s talking to the people and asking them how they’re doing.”
Jessip says the Gray Ladies and Lads have been sources of inspiration for his own work.
“This group is where I come to seek wisdom at. You get to see who’s been here the longest, how many people they’ve touched in their lives, which is astronomical. This is a unique family of volunteers at CarolinaEast Medical Center.”
As a reminder of that “unique family” the volunteers keep a photo of the the first class of Gray Ladies to work at the hospital pinned to the bulletin board in their office. The photo shows a group of women dressed in matching gray uniforms gathered outside of the hospital. Standing in the front row, smiling, is Lummie Faulkenberry.
“The best part is seeing a smile on people’s faces,” she says, the vibrant eyes and wry smile still recognizable from the photo taken five decades ago. “It just brings a lot of satisfaction.”
“You know, a lot us volunteers talk about retirement,” she adds, “but then what would we do on Thursdays.”