On Valentine’s Day 1984, Karen Fox walked into Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital dressed as Raggedy Ann, intent on taking a message of hope and love to the patients.
Herself a cancer survivor who had recently received abnormal test results, she first visited a throat cancer patient in his 70s who had not spoken in eight months. He smiled at the sight of her and a tear rolled down his cheek when she said, “I love you.” As she walked out of the room and into the hallway, she heard the man faintly say, “I love you too Raggedy Ann.”
Thirty years later, Santa Barbara-based Adventures in Caring has taught thousands of future and practicing health-care professionals to provide compassion to their patients. The volunteers have made more than 1 million visits to patients in California and the West, and the organization’s materials are being used by hospitals, hospices and nursing schools throughout the country.
“That’s been a big piece of our mission — teaching the future leaders the art and practice of treating patients with compassion,” said Karen’s husband, Executive Director Simon Fox.
The organization started off as a volunteer training program but transitioned into a service learning program. More than 95 percent of the volunteers are undergraduate students going into the health-care profession. The students who come in as freshmen generally stay on for all four years, Karen, the founding director, told the Business Times.
The one-year program includes class training and weekly patient visits to learn the human side of health care. “Within that time, those skills become second nature,” Simon said. “They learn them before they go to medical school or dental school or graduate nursing school.”
The intensity of medical school is known to overshadow the fact that the medical profession, at its core, is about working with people, Simon said. “The science is very sophisticated and complex, and sometimes it can eclipse the human interaction,” he said.
There are roughly 100 volunteers in the field at any one time, visiting 11 local facilities each week. Stops are made at Cottage Hospital, Vista del Monte, Heritage House and Central Coast Nursing Center, among others.
Adventures in Caring also provides training DVDs nationwide. “Other organizations started coming to us, asking, ‘How do you teach your volunteers to do that?’” Simon said. The first was released in 1997 for volunteers, and a professional series for medical staff came out in 2004. The latest DVD — to teach first responders and others in high-stress health-care jobs how to avoid burnout — will launch this month. “We do them all on a shoestring budget,” Simon said, “but I think they like the authenticity.”
Sales of the DVDs help fund the organization, providing about 25 percent of its budget. Grants and donations make up the bulk of the funding. “It’s been a community effort,” Simon said. “This program was born here in Santa Barbara and it’s growing up.”
There have been some changes since Karen’s first visit. Volunteers can no longer dress as Raggedy Ann or Andy in the hospitals, but the costumes are still allowed in the skilled nursing facilities and retirement homes.
“The residents/patients identify so much to them,” she said. She picked Raggedy Ann because of childhood memories of the doll given to her by her grandmother. “Anytime that I was upset, hurt, emotionally or physically, out would come my Raggedy Ann doll,” Karen said. That was the role she wanted to play in the lives of patients.
Simon also noted that “you’re basically in rags,” which puts the volunteers in a humbling position. “There’s a tremendous amount of trust that’s built,” he said.
As Adventures in Caring marks three decades of service on Feb. 14, Simon said “the 30 years has made it long enough that we have proven it over and over and over.”
Volunteers from 20 years ago are now mid-career and passing on the organization’s training and materials to their students. “We have given them a reliable, applicable model that they can use to teach others,” he said.
Karen noted the significance of the anniversary falling on Valentine’s Day. “Unconditional love is what it’s all about,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be a piece of paper, balloon, candy. It can be a person there for another person…. That was my motivation.”