July 2012 Volunteer of the Month
When people hear the dreaded words “you have ALS,” they might feel scared, but because of Sandy Hanson, they don’t have to feel alone.
Whether you are a patient who wants someone to recognize how it feels to lose control of your body, or a family member who needs someone to understand the challenges of becoming a caregiver, Sandy Hanson has been there to do what she does best: listen.
And Sandy has been listening for nearly 30 years.
Our July Volunteer of the Month has made volunteering a part of her life even before she was touched by Lou Gehrig’s Disease. When Sandy was teaching, she spent her summers volunteering at the Allentown Hospital, and when her daughter was growing up, she volunteered with the PTA and the library.
When her husband Tom was diagnosed with ALS over 30 years ago, things changed. People started to volunteer for her. While he faced his disease, he did so with the help and support of friends and neighbors. Their fellow church members worked out a schedule to turn Tom and Sandy’s neighbor, an ER nurse, showed her how to give her husband injections for medicine while other friends brought food and did yard work.
After Tom passed away, Sandy was approached by his primary care nurse and one of the therapists at the nursing home where he spent some time. They asked Sandy if she would form a support group with them for families facing ALS. Sandy admits she was terrified and self-conscious in front of groups, but, with the help of social workers and therapists at the hospital, she did it and started a new journey in her life helping others with ALS.
Sandy recalls hearing the line “You can never REPAY, you can only pay IN KIND.” After all of the love and support she received assisting her husband, Sandy has dedicated herself to giving back in kind. She and the other caregivers offered a support group in the nursing home for several years. Even though Sandy wasn’t confident about speaking in groups, she knew what was valuable to patients and families because she had lived it. She insisted that the group set aside time for caregivers and patients to meet separately, since she knew that people might have questions and comments that they did not feel comfortable sharing openly. They talked with nutritionists, therapists, nurses, and attorneys to discuss living wills. They had important and sometimes emotional conversations.
And they had fun.
As often happens, the group slowly disbanded over time, but Sandy never stopped listening. She began to visit those who could no longer get out to meetings and quickly became the voice of ALS in the Reading area, getting calls from as far away as Harrisburg to come visit a patient or family member.
Sandy has visited patients ever since, over two dozen in all. A few years ago, she became an official Visiting Volunteer under the guidance of Gail Houseman, but that just put a title on years of service.
“When I met Gail for the first time and she asked what we felt to offer as Visiting Volunteers, I said I had no skills with computers, but I could listen,” said Sandy, looking back on her years as a volunteer.
And listen she has. Sandy has visited patients and families, chauffeured people to hairdressers and meetings, and was once even stopped by the local police because she was wearing a Santa hat and weaving (so said the officer). All the time she has been listening. Often, as Sandy knows well, it is the spouse that needs to talk.
Listening is not always something that comes naturally to people. With our busy lives and constant distractions, many people are just waiting for their turn to talk. Sandy is genuine. She knows that patients and loved ones have important questions and giant weights they need to get off of their chests. She gives them her attention, which is a compassion that makes many feel more at ease and less afraid.
Sandy told the Chapter: “I have learned so much from all of these families, so much more than they have learned from me. They are my heroes, each and every one of them. To get up each morning and go about your life, as ALS patients do, knowing there is no cure, is to me heroics of the highest order.
“Currently, I am visiting the most incredible couple. She is a patient who must use a communicator or write her words, but she grasps her walker and goes off to volunteer at the hospital or play games with her friends, or go to the kitchen to make wonderful Greek cookies. Her husband helps feed her and taker her wherever she needs to go, and that is just about anywhere. I am indeed fortunate to have met them and so many others like them who are triumphing over ALS.”
Some people can give thousands of dollars and some can give medical treatments or devices, but you cannot put a price tag on the simple act of listening. Even when people with ALS lose their ability to speak, or their spouse can’t find the words to express their emotions, Sandy understands them and listens to everything they have to say.
Even if they have nothing to say at all.
Thank you Sandy for all of the time you have given to those with ALS. We mean that in every sense of the word.