Her hands are warm.
This comes as a surprise. The day is so bitterly cold. The hospital, despite its soft earth-tone decor, is big and empty. Plus Jean Bailey, white-haired, stooped with age, is nearly a full century old. It does not seem possible that the hands of this 98-year-old woman should be warm.
Yet they are. They are warm when they reach for a stranger’s arm, when they encircle her in a hug, when they do something as simple and important as take another’s hand and just hold it.
This longtime Methodist Health System volunteer exudes warmth in her blue eyes, her smile, in the comfortable way she calls everyone at the hospital imaging station “kid.”
Jean Bailey even looks warm in her red turtleneck, gray zip-up sweater and pressed slacks, a warm contrast to the black hospital scrubs the Methodist Women’s Hospital staff are wearing on this day. There is something very comforting about a hospital helper wearing normal clothes.
It’s as if your grandmother has come to lead you down the hallway, fetch your dressing gown, offer a blanket and even hold your hand as you await a CT scan or MRI. The scans — and the potential news — are nerve-wracking.
So Bailey’s presence in imaging on these Monday mornings is a comfort to staff and patients alike.
Almost playing to type, Bailey, a grandmother of four and great-grandmother of four, is grandmotherly. She brings treats for the workers. She makes and fetches coffee for a couple of visitors. She is both steely — she ran her own floral business for three decades — and soft — she’s generous with the compliments.
She moves unbelievably fast for someone of her years. There she goes, zipping down corridors, pulling her name badge on its elastic cord to open doors.
She takes patients from the front lobby to the back changing room and then to yet another room where they prepare for their scans. She fetches what they need and talks them through the process. She practically runs to check on the nurse or the tech or the time.
Bailey is an old hat at volunteering. She started at Methodist 36 years ago at the behest of her late friend, Edith Clark, wife of her pastor, the Rev. Alva Clark, for whom the educational center at Nebraska Methodist College is named. Edith Clark had gently scolded her for not being busy enough.
Bailey had built a house, literally, with her cabinet-maker husband, Lauren. As a homemaker she had raised their three children. She had run a floral business. She had volunteered for 4-H. She felt plenty busy, thank you very much, but Edith Clark pressed: You’ve just got to volunteer and you should do it at the hospital.
So Bailey said yes. She started in the surgery lounge at Methodist Hospital, near 84th Street and West Dodge Road. Several years ago, she asked to volunteer at Methodist Women’s Hospital, near 192nd Street and West Dodge Road, because it’s closer to her apartment in Elkhorn.
She is one of among 600-some volunteers who help in the system’s hospitals and clinics around Omaha in patient services, information and hospitality, the gift shops, support services and specialized areas.
Methodist recognized her service in 2005 with its “Goodwill” award and again in 2017, when former Methodist President and CEO John Fraser gave Bailey the health system’s “honorary lifetime V.I.P. Award.”
“This award is given to a volunteer with a history of exceptional service,” Fraser had said.
Born in Wyoming, Bailey later moved to Omaha with Lauren, and the two had nearly 50 years of happy marriage until Lauren’s death in 1988 of cancer.
For the next three decades, Bailey stayed busy with her floral business, church and volunteer activities. Her health stayed pretty good.
She wears hearing aids. She wears glasses only for reading — mysteries, her favorite genre. She stopped driving two years ago, she said, to save her children the trouble of having to tell her she could no longer be on the road.
Though she was recommended for heart surgery — the valve leading into her aorta “isn’t working right; blood is kind of slow” — Bailey said she turned it down.
“Why?” she asked of doing heart surgery at her age. “Who knows if I’d make it off the table!”
Bailey said she takes three half-hour naps a day and sits down if she gets too tired.
Volunteering, like all charity work, is reciprocal, and the person who gives also receives. Experts on aging would say that Bailey’s volunteer work probably helps her stay healthy and happy because it gets her out, moving and socializing with people. It gives her purpose.
While Bailey said that was true — “everybody needs a reason to get up” — she tries not to spend a lot of time dwelling on feeling good. She is not volunteering to feel good.
“You have to give something back,” she said.
Then, she added: “I love it, you know? I enjoy people.”
What is most important to her is being as independent as she can, especially during this chapter of her life.
“I’m doing what I want to do,” she said. “The minister a couple weeks ago said, ‘What do you want? That’s a hard question to answer.’ He said a lot of us want our own way. I guess what I’m having is my own way.”
It also sounds like Bailey’s not the type to sit still. At her assisted living complex, she calls bingo, plays cards, bakes goodies and goes out every Friday to get her hair done and have lunch. Bailey can’t understand why people would sit around and complain when life offers so many blessings.
“Blessed” is a word she uses often, referring to her “good life” and “wonderful husband” and “very smart kids.” She felt blessed when four generations of her family worked for Methodist including daughter Patty Burke, who died of colon cancer in 2017.
“That was a rough one,” she said, quickly adding: “But she’s still with me.”
Bailey doesn’t dwell on her age.
Instead, her focus is on whoever is right in front of her.
On a recent Monday, the person right in front of her is Kristen Marmo, a radiology tech who is due to have her first baby on Feb. 13. Bailey wraps an arm around her waist and pats the growing tummy.
“Did you decide on a name yet?” Bailey asked Marmo. “It’s time.”
Marmo coyly shrugs off any grandma pressure and tells Bailey: “I’ve got two weeks!”
Bailey fetches Sarah Swanson, a 42-year-old UPS worker who has come in for her fourth or fifth MRI. Swanson can’t keep track.
Her mother had breast cancer, and Swanson has the BRCA gene, which raises the possibility that she could get breast cancer, too. Swanson walks the Methodist hallway with a swagger. She doesn’t seem to need the hand-holding Bailey offers. She turns down Bailey’s offer of a blanket. But she loves Bailey’s company and said: “Please tell me she’s not retiring.”
Bailey said she has no plans to slow down. She enjoys her Monday mornings. And her warm hands are needed here.
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