YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Compassionate Corps Assists Troubled : Volunteers Help With Hospital's Mental Patients

April 24, 1985|PENELOPE MOFFET

The 14-year-old who had tried suicide hadn't spoken to anyone since being admitted to the locked ward at Brea Hospital Neuropsychiatric Center. When volunteer Marguerite Davis first saw her, she knew the patient needed something other than conversation.

Instead of trying to engage the girl in talk, Davis spent an hour gently brushing the adolescent's hair and polishing her nails. Toward the end, the girl spoke just a few words, words that indicated she was a victim of sexual abuse.

On an evening visit the next week, Davis again felt drawn to the girl. This time she began talking to her in a non-threatening way. After a while the 14-year-old burst into tears and said: "I can't understand why, if my dad loved me, he could have done this to me for so many years."

"I knew I was treading on dangerous ground," the 55-year-old La Habra resident recalled. However, she encouraged the girl to speak. In the report Davis later wrote of the encounter, she was able to provide background information no one had previously drawn out of the child.

The Breakthrough

"Suddenly you get the report; suddenly you get the breakthrough," Davis said. "Often the volunteers can get next to (patients) and get information out where the psychiatrist cannot. I just love them (patients), and I think the love comes through. You should never go into something like that without love. You need a firm kind of love. And don't turn your back too long," she added, laughing.

This is National Volunteers Week, and many companies and nonprofit agencies around the county will honor those who have donated time and energy all year long. Davis is not scheduled to win any awards (although each of the hospital's volunteers will receive a rose and a mug from their supervisor). Nevertheless, for eight years she has been the kind of unpaid worker the week was meant to honor.

An unusual volunteer in an unusual volunteer program, Davis enters the private hospital's locked ward, where the most severe cases are held, about once a week. Few of the facility's core of 50 volunteers are comfortable in that environment (most opt to work in the open wards) and few have undergone as intense a training program as has Davis. A special education teacher who works during the day at Lanterman State Hospital, a Pomona facility for mentally retarded people, Davis had a year's volunteer training at the Brea hospital. Closely supervised at first, she's now "a sort of free spirit" who sets her own visiting hours and goes where the need is greatest, she said.

"She's the only one (volunteer) to really understand where they're at on the locked unit," admitted Jan Briley, the hospital's director of volunteers, who trained Davis. Briley is a salaried staff member. "She's the only one to really follow through with a patient on the locked unit. Her training went further" than that of most volunteers, said the administrator. Those who want to work individually with patients usually undergo a 10-week training course in which the requirements can be altered to fit the volunteer's talents and abilities. (In most other Orange County psychiatric hospitals, volunteer opportunities for working one-to-one with inpatients are rare, but a number of alternative opportunities for mental health volunteers do exist. See accompanying article.)

At Brea Hospital, volunteers work in 17 different programs under Briley's supervision. Among those individual and group activities are grooming, literacy tutoring, sewing, needlecraft, relaxation therapy, songwriting, dance instruction and the coordination of special events, such as a recent party sponsored by the Fullerton Elks Club. Volunteers also help on excursions away from the hospital, handle paper work, staff the front office information desk and work in a Christian therapy program with patients who have requested such treatment. What's needed varies from time to time. According to Briley, "One of the keys to being a volunteer in a psychiatric hospital is flexibility."

As a long-term volunteer, Davis is granted an unusual amount of freedom. She sets her own hours, coming in when she has time, and usually determines for herself which patients she wants to work with. Knowing who she can approach "is instinctive, if you've been in the field long enough," Davis said. "I pray a lot before I go to the ward: 'Lord, lead me . . . tonight.' " Nevertheless, not every patient responds to her concern. "If they don't like you, they'll just walk right out of the room. It doesn't earn them any points" to talk with a volunteer, she added.

"I consider myself a catalyst, to get in oftentimes where the psychiatrist cannot get in, to establish rapport, to make them think," said the volunteer. "I don't give advice unless they ask me as another human being." Volunteers are not supposed to do actual therapy with patients, she said; those services are provided by professional staff.

Los Angeles Times Articles