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Patient Partners Recycle Expertise and Hope

For many Americans, retirement is no longer the beginning of a life of leisure, it's the start of a new career. Other retired professionals discover they liked what they were doing before, and their years of experience are still valued. In Minneapolis, Minnesota, a group of retired doctors and nurses - and their expertise - returned to Abbott Northwestern Hospital, not as active professionals but supportive volunteers. They've become patient partners.

Before her retirement last year, registered nurse Sharon Mertz started to think about what her hospital loses every time an experienced caregiver leaves the staff.

"There were a lot of nurses in my age group, in their 50s and 60s, a large group of us that were going to retire over the next few years," she says. "We were going to lose an awful lot of not only experience and compassion, but there is a lot of loyalty amongst long term nurses."

At the same time, retired plastic surgeon James Gaviser was also thinking about loss. He was forced into early retirement in 2002 after suffering a stroke, so he was seeing the hospital from the patient's point of view.

"Unfortunately, I've been a patient for a long time," he says. "I recognized when I had been in that situation, I felt 'I wish someone could advise me. I know I've got the doctor, but I wish somebody who has some experience similar to mine could tell me about that.'"

When Dr. Gaviser and nurse Mertz got together to discuss their concerns, they came up with the Patient Partner volunteer program.

"Both Sharon and I developed the idea that if we talk to the patients, they would tell us what they want," he says. "So instead of saying 'what can I do for you?' if we just talk to them about their lives, they would express their feelings about what they need."

Sixteen retired nurses and physicians are now back at Abbott Northwestern as part of the program. Each volunteer visits the same patient for five days in a row. Mertz says since they are no longer on staff, they must get the patient's permission before visiting.

"We introduce ourselves and say: 'I'm a retired nurse," she says. "'Your doctor thought it would be nice if I stopped to visit you. Do you have time right now?' If they say yes, we sit down. Sometimes we're there for 10 minutes. Sometimes I visited for one hour. The patient kind of determines what the agenda is going to be."

Mertz says volunteers are encouraged to do whatever makes a patient feel more comfortable and taken care of. "We do simple things that a neighbor or a friend would do. Brush their hair, I do that sometimes, or I help them brush their teeth," she says. "I've given a foot rub or a back rub, made some phone calls. Played a lot of cribbage. If patients have asked me to pray with them, I've been comfortable to do that. So I do that too."

Volunteers often write down suggested questions for patients to ask their physicians. The retired medical professionals find they can answer some of the questions themselves.

"They might say, 'You know, my doctor told me my magnesium is low. What's magnesium?,'" she says. "That's kind of a general medical question any doctor or nurse can answer. It doesn't pertain exactly to what's going on with them. But if they ask us something very specific such as, 'You know, my doctor thinks I should have such and such procedure. What do you think I should do?' That's where we stand back. Then we'll say to her, 'I just talked to your nurse right before I came in here. She's probably the one that you should talk with about that. I don't read your medical records, so I'm not that close to your situation.'"

The retirees' impact on the current doctor-patient relationship was a concern for Hospital Vice President Richard Sturgeon when James Gaviser and Sharon Mertz approached him with their Patient Partner idea. "I had a slight reservation and that had to do with the possibility that these well-intended volunteers would somehow interfere with the relationship that was necessary between the patient and family and their current responsible caregiver, whether it is the nurse or physician," he says. "I was pleased to find that the volunteers, particularly the leadership of these volunteers, Sharon and Jamie, were as concerned about that issue as I was, and that they had taken significant steps with the volunteers to help them anticipate such a possible misstep and try to avoid it."

In evaluating the program a year after it started, Dr. Sturgeon says Patient Partners proved worthwhile for everyone involved. "I believe many of the patients have been slightly better off because of the opportunity to have these volunteers spend some time with them," he says. "I'm equally sure that retired physicians and nurses continue to have the opportunity to get the joy and satisfaction of caring for people in a new way that they didn't have during their career."

Patient Partner co-founder Sharon Mertz says in many cases all the patients need is time with a knowledgeable, caring visitor who listens to their concerns and is willing to offer support. By doing that, she says, the program provides a helping hand for physicians and nurses on staff, and makes the hospital experience less stressful for everyone.