I just got my teeth cleaned. After Corey, the hygienist and I catch up on each other, I kinda use the time to close my eyes and think, usually about all the things I’ve forgotten to do. But this time, I was looking into my Corey’s eyes above her mask, backlit by that huge bulb. Those eyes look sad, I thought.
“What’s going on” I asked before she could put her fingers into my mouth. Her eyes jumped, puzzled. “What do you mean,” she asked, her hands retreating.
“You seem, I don’t know…”
“I’m not sleeping much,” she admitted.
“I don’t know, just so much work and it’s exhausting and I go home so so tired. Maybe it’s just the weather.” Her fingers came back.
Unable to ask more in words not garbled, I closed my eyes and my mind starting to drift, like a thought canoe down the Amazon River of figuring things out. I’d seen those eyes before, but where? The thought canoe continued to float through the heavy waters and I searched the shores of memories for answers, but I did not recognize anything slithering along the shore. The thought canoe drifted with the current and then a vibrant image flew into view. I’ve seen those eyes on volunteers, who were burnt out from so much taking in of strangers’ pain and suffering. Their volunteer eyes, ringed with the emotions trapped within, sometimes silently pleaded with me to give them a break and allow them to see the sun for a bit. I recalled volunteer Marie, who looked so bone weary one day I asked her to sit and talk. She confided that her husband was just diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The patient she volunteered for had Alzheimer’s and was an emotionally difficult case. Volunteer Jim’s eyes flew into view when he had four patients die in rapid succession. These volunteers wore the emotional toll on their faces. Corey’s eyes spoke volumes. She was bone weary, but why? I thought about her job and I saw her superimposed over the many volunteers and staff and bartenders and hairdressers and all the professions that hear so much. Corey’s job required her to be calming, gentle, soothing and that demeanor made her very much like the volunteers I work with everyday.
When the polishing stopped, I sat up, my mouth now mine to use. “Corey, do you hear a lot of stories from your patients?”
“Why yes, they all tell me things about their lives and sometimes they must have some really tough procedures and I just feel for them. Some can’t afford what they need and they tell me why. It’s sad.”
“What do you do with those stories, I mean, you, personally?”
Her eyes were puzzled, wary. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Do you go home and think about them?
“Oh, yes, all the time, my husband thinks I’m crazy, but I can’t help it. There are people who have hardships in their lives, people who have bad things happen to them. Sometimes I find myself thinking about them at bedtime and my mind just won’t quiet.”
Corey knows I work with volunteers. I told her about how we try to help our volunteers be able to purge so that they don’t think about death all the time. I told her that she, like our volunteers spends intimate time with her patients and they naturally open up to her and that she is taking in, absorbing their pains and frustrations. I told her I tell volunteers that in order to be successful, they have to learn how to empty their vessels of compassion or else they will suffer, both mentally and physically.
“How do you know this?” she asked, as she put the tools down.
“I’ve seen it. I’ve seen the effects of it. I’ve seen great volunteers become so immersed in a patient’s life that they infect their own. I’ve seen volunteers with the weight of the world on their shoulders who become inert because they can’t think about one more tragic circumstance. You’re not alone, Corey. You and all the hygienists here and everywhere are not alone in this.”
“But what do I do? What do your volunteers do?”
“They learn to be with someone 100% when with them and not 20% when they are not. Do you think that your worrying about your patients at night at home helps them?”
“No, I don’t suppose it does.”
“Do you think that your listening as someone who cares helps them?”
“Oh yes, I do think so, they tell me.”
“Then do you think that your listening to them has to translate into worrying about them later? And does that worrying help you be with your family or does it keep you at work?”
She thought for a moment. “I don’t know, but I see what you’re saying.”
At the end of the appointment, Cory hugged me and thanked me for listening to her, although I felt like I might have lectured her. I sure hope not.
See, the lessons we learn and share with our volunteers can be shared with anyone. These are life lessons, lessons in living, lessons in character, lessons in survival and lessons in humility. We, volunteer managers, can throw it out to the world and if the world wants to hear, then fine. We typically do not hoard the knowledge we’ve gained, just like we don’t hoard volunteering. We invite everyone to participate, to grow and learn and to teach us, because I believe that we are knowledge junkies and perhaps in some small way, we can share the things we have learned with our volunteers, other staff, family and friends and even the hygienist with the weary eyes.