Christine Brown has put many of her skills and education to work during her 10 years as an Empath Health volunteer.
A retired Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN), she visits the Suncoast Hospice North Pinellas Care Center in Palm Harbor every Friday, making sure hospice patients and their families feel at home. Suncoast Hospice is a member of Empath Health.
A certified yoga instructor, she led sessions for Suncoast Hospice colleagues and volunteers. Yoga sessions have since been suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but she hopes they will resume soon.
A loving pet owner, she took her dog, Brownie, on weekly visits to the Care Center before he passed away.
Now, Brown is employing a skill she learned back in college. She is speaking Greek with Aphrodite, a 90-year-old palliative care patient who lives in a Largo nursing home. Aphrodite enjoys speaking her native language, but no one else in the facility speaks it.
So Brown calls Aphrodite every week to talk. You might say it’s Greek to both of them. But it makes Aphrodite’s day. Brown made a point to call Aphrodite to mark Epiphany, a Greek Orthodox holiday, on Jan. 19.
“It’s been very challenging because I’m not Greek,” Brown said. “I learned the language in school. It was really great to hone up on my skill. I really appreciate the fact that she doesn’t have a lot of community where she’s located that speaks her language. I call her, and she enjoys the phone calls.”
Aphrodite has a lot to say. She is very proud of her children, a son and daughter who live nearby and visit often. The children are fluent in Greek, too.
“She has bragging rights,” Brown said. “I give her the opportunity to use those bragging rights. She gets an opportunity she wouldn’t have because nobody else there speaks Greek.”
Volunteers like Brown are vital to non-profit healthcare organizations like Empath Health. During Fiscal Year 2022, Empath’s 2,000 volunteers provided almost 200,000 hours of service that represented more than $5 million of value to the company. In 2019, the nation’s hospice volunteers generated more than $469 million in annual savings, the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO) reported.
Unfortunately, Empath Health has suffered a reduction of volunteers that began during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Vice President of Volunteer Engagement Stacy Groff, volunteer numbers are down 30 to 50 percent from pre-pandemic levels, depending on the service line. Few of the volunteers who left during the pandemic are returning.
Volunteering for a hospice organization was a perfect fit for Brown, who spent part of her healthcare career as a clinical director of continuing care at a hospice in New York City. She moved to Florida about 15 years ago to become a clinical operations manager at Moffitt Cancer Center. Brown was already an Empath Health volunteer when her husband died at Suncoast’s North Pinellas Care Center about six years ago.
Brown is now retired. She recruited a fellow nursing retiree she met at the gym to join the ranks of Empath volunteers. They go to the Care Center together every Friday.
“The organization is very flexible in what you want to do and what you want to give,” Brown said. “They’re going to find the right role for you. You just have to speak up and say, ‘Hey, I like patient interaction. Oh, I’d rather do office work.’ There are so many opportunities. I highly recommend it. You’re treated very well here. It’s a really collaborative, compassionate organization.”
For more information about volunteering in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, call (727) 523-3440. In Sarasota, Manatee, Charlotte and Desoto counties, call (941) 441-2061. Information and an application are available at EmpathVolunteers.org.