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Tom Pattantyus: Volunteering in a veterans’ hospital

Right here, right now

Posted: April 1, 2010 11:13 p.m.
Updated: April 2, 2010 4:30 a.m.
Forty-four years after immigrating to the United States with my family, I have finally retired at the age of 74. My wife and I are Hungarian refugees, having escaped in November 1956, after the Soviet Union crushed the anti-communist uprising. We lived in England until our emigration to the United States.

By providing opportunities to study, grow and prosper, the United States has been very good to us. I have wanted to pay back some of the gifts of the country my family and I received over the years. This motivated me to visit the local Veterans Affairs hospital upon my retirement and join the volunteer program.

The hospital is located in a large, Midwestern urban area next to the major health system of a highly recognized and respected university. The VA hospital in question is not unique; a VA health facility similar in size operates in San Diego.

I signed up to work in the physical therapy department at the end of August 2008 to work for four hours twice a week. My work includes attending to patients and providing nonprofessional services in the department.

I serve patients by transporting them in their wheelchairs back to their rooms or to other appointments following their physical therapy sessions. I assist by following the patients with their wheelchairs, while they take a walk with the help of the therapists.

In addition, sheets and pillow cases have to be changed on the treatment benches; devices and equipment must be disinfected before and after use; walking canes need to be cut to size; and rollators and wheelchairs must be assembled, because just like most modern toys, they are shipped with the instruction: “Minor assembly required.”

I also provide “go-fer” service to save time of the professional therapists. After spending four hours at the mentioned activities (often nonstop), I am done for that day and must recognize the sad fact that my old age is catching up with me.

My work provides ample occasion to meet all sorts of people. The department employs 19 full-time employees and two to three students doing their required clinical practice, ranging from a few weeks to a full college term in length.

The care provided by the professional staff is best characterized by the “values statement” of the hospital: compassion, commitment, excellence, professionalism and integrity. I would also add, from my personal observations, patience, politeness and firmness — all so important to help hurting patients to go through the necessary exercises promoting their recovery.

The staff is appreciative of the volunteers’ help, and they certainly notice the difference at times when no volunteer assistance is available.

The patients are veterans from World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam era and other conflicts. They often notice my accent, prompting them to ask about my background, which leads to conversations during transport trips.

One World War II veteran asked me last year: “How old are you?” “Seventy-five,” was my answer. “Good”, he said, “because I don’t like people fussing with me who don’t know when, where and why we fought back then.”

My compensation for four hours of work is a free lunch in the cafeteria.

On Mondays, I try to find an available seat at any table, which allows me to get acquainted with other hospital employees, volunteers or outpatient veterans.

On Thursdays, I join a group of Marine veteran volunteers for lunch. Most of my friends from the Marines are Vietnam veterans, but the two oldest ones were World War II fighters, survivors of intense Pacific actions.

They accepted me in their group in spite of the fact I was drafted and served in the “wrong” army (the Communist Hungarian People’s Army), because I proved with my escape that I was not a communist. Our lunchtime conversations are always wide-ranging and interesting.

Volunteering in a veteran’s hospital or helping veterans in any form is a good way to say Thank you” to the people who fought for our country or served otherwise in the armed forces.

Tom Pattantyus is a retired electronic engineer and can be reached at His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. “Right Here, Right Now” appears Fridays in The Signal and rotates among local Republican writers.


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