A long-time patient decides to give back
Bill Southern was going stir-crazy.
Nearly two weeks after suffering a heart attack, he was still in bed at Northwest Hospital. But he couldn’t take it any longer; he had to get outside. So he informed his nurse he intended to make a getaway.
That wasn’t happening, she told him. But if he could wait until her next break, she would take him out.
She wheeled Southern to the garden just outside the main hospital tower and stopped in front of a fountain. All of a sudden the oasis overwhelmed him, he said. His senses seemed heightened as the wind rustled leaves and the bright sunshine made the vivid colors of the flowers almost glow.
“It was the most remarkable sensation I’d ever experienced,” said Southern, 67. “It’s almost like I became alive in that moment.”
He’s never forgotten that scene. And as he recently discovered, that nurse didn’t forget him either. A few weeks ago, he ran into her at Northwest Hospital, some seven years after his heart attack.
“You’re back!” she exclaimed before hugging him. Yes, Southern said, but as a volunteer, not a patient.
“Because you all took such good care of me, I wanted to give back.”
Southern does just that two or three days a week as a volunteer. He escorts patients to their cars as they leave the hospital, runs material to the testing lab, and helps out as best he can at the hospital that saved his life.
Over the years, Southern has also been treated at Northwest Hospital for prostate cancer, sleep apnea and chronic back pain. But it was his stay after his heart attack that impressed him most. He can still recall the little things the staff did, like memorizing his wife’s phone number after a quick glance. He searched for ways to thank them.
“I don’t do flowers,” Southern says. “But when I left I told my wife I had to get flowers for this group.”
Now he says thank you as a volunteer, a passion that helps him fill the time during his “boring retirement.” Southern worked for years as a public relations professional, perhaps most prominently as the head of PR for Washington State Department of Transportation. The I-90 bridge sank on his watch in 1990, on Thanksgiving Day. A reporter called him that morning seeking a comment. About what? Southern asked.
Shortly after, he was in his car, speeding down the interstate to get to the scene. He arrived just in time to see the final pontoon rise and then sink beneath Lake Washington. “It was like the Twilight Zone. Everything was so quiet, you could hear the bridge gurgling as it went down.”
Fortunately, no one was hurt. He went on to work PR with the Special Olympics (“the most rewarding job of my career”) and Seattle Public Schools.
Southern retired in 2013, and everyone expected that he’d spend quality time on the golf course and hanging out with old colleagues. But Southern doesn’t know how to play golf, and a lot of his friends were too busy with their personal and professional lives to get together. It was then he started thinking about volunteerism and how best to use his years of experience as a PR and media outreach professional to make a difference. Northwest Hospital and the care he received there swam back into his memory.
He still remembers how when he left the hospital, the return to the real world was a jolt. “I had just died, and nobody knew! It was a revelation. I realized Northwest Hospital was special, and I had to do something to give back.”
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