Two men in volunteer jackets and face masks stand by the information desk in a hospital lobby.
Volunteers Alexander Gulka and Noah Miranda stand by at the White Lobby Information Desk.

In typical times, pink-jacketed volunteers can be seen throughout Massachusetts General Hospital. About 1,300 of these dedicated individuals help keep the hospital running—keeping family members up to date about their loved ones’ surgeries, offering pet therapy and pushing book carts on inpatient floors. In mid-March, with the hospital preparing for a wave of COVID-19 patients, all volunteer programs were placed on pause except one: patient discharge and escort.

Now the volunteer corps is a mere 1% of its usual number. Stationed at the information desk in the White Lobby on the main campus, volunteers help discharge patients, get patients to their appointments—many who have come for imaging or chemotherapy treatments—and, because visitors are currently unable to come into the hospital except in rare circumstances, volunteers distribute packages and gifts from family members to their loved ones.

Given the current no-visitor policy, the patient connection with staff members and volunteers is more important than ever, says retired nurse Nancy Vogler, who has volunteered for six months. “A little interpersonal interaction goes a long way these days when loved ones can’t accompany them to appointments and treatments,” she says. “People may not remember what you said, but they remember how you made them feel.”

In addition to the services they offer patients, volunteers lend a valuable hand to information desk staff. “We feel a sense of relief when they are around,” says Josefina Marroquin, information desk associate. “They lessen the pressure by helping with the transport of patients to their destinations. That frees up a lot of our time to assist the influx of patients.” 

Adds Edward Jacoby, information desk associate, “They all should be commended for their continuing support of the hospital in these unusual times.” 

Yet many volunteers—including trial attorney Michael Grace, who has volunteered in the White Lobby for more than a year—say the pleasure is entirely theirs. “This is a very moving and inspirational endeavor,” Grace says. “I get more out of it than I give.”

Alexander Gulka agrees. When Mass General Volunteer Department Director Jackie Nolan sent a note on March 12 seeking help with the escort and discharge process, Gulka didn’t hesitate. Both a volunteer and a researcher at Mass General, Gulka says, “Being on the ground with the volunteer department during this time has been a really joyful part of my life. I’ve been inspired by the attitude and resolve of the patients coming to the hospital during these extraordinary circumstances. If they can be so optimistic, we can be equally resilient.”