"Please don't let me die by myself" was the last request of one patient at Lourdes hospital. With a bustling medical wing and no people to spare, the staff knew whom they needed to call.
"To me, that's one of the saddest things, to lay there in a bed and know that you're dying, and nobody with you," said volunteer Marie Jackson, 89, of Paducah. "I wanted her to know that she wasn't alone."
Jackson went into the still room. The only sound was the quiet breathing of the patient in her bed. Jackson sat next to the woman and took her hand.
"My name is Marie and I'm a volunteer," she said. "I'm going to be here until you go home. Don't worry. Just lay there and enjoy the journey."
Jackson patted her hand and told the woman that she loved her and that God loved her. Jackson then prayed with her, and when she finished, she asked the woman to squeeze her hand if she could hear her. The woman squeezed Jackson's hand, and a few seconds later, she died.
Jackson is one of several volunteers at Lourdes near or above the age of 90. The volunteers all have their areas that they cover. Some check people into offices, while others might give directions to parts of the hospital.
"They are here to serve the patients of Lourdes," said Volunteer Coordinator Shannon Courtney. "It gives them inclusion and social outlets with other volunteers. It makes them feel that they are giving back to others with their time and talents."
Jackson has been volunteering at Lourdes since 1997, some months after her husband, Dr. V.A. Jackson, died. Jackson had worked as a nurse anesthetist alongside her husband her entire career until they retired.
"My love is patients," she said. "I love people. I'm a people-person."
Jackson is also part of the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team where she volunteers as a chaplain wherever natural disasters strike. She said she wished she could do all the things she wanted to do, but some physical factors stand in her way, something she said comes with getting older.
"I think I've lived as long as I've lived because I have stayed active," she said. "If you keep your mind busy all the time, I think that makes a difference in your age."
Other volunteers in the hospital agree with Jackson. Wilma Edds, 91, of Paducah said it was important for her to keep volunteering.
"If I quit, I won't last very long," Edds said. "Now, I just get up and go."
Edds was also a nurse by profession, back "when polio was blooming." She works at the check-in desk at the Vascular and Cardiac Care Center in Lourdes, greeting patients with a wide smile as they arrive. She wears a Tennessee Volunteers watch with pride, using it as a conversation starter to tell stories about nursing school at her alma mater.
Edds said she has been blessed to have such good health throughout her life.
"I have never been what you would call ill and I haven't broken any bones," she said. She smiled and patted the side of her hat that covered a cut she sustained from a fall that earned her 11 clamps and 13 stitches.
One of the big reasons she continues to volunteer is because she misses nursing. Though she doesn't get to practice those medical skills she learned in college, she still enjoys the hospital setting. She used to volunteer in the ICU answering phones, but she much prefers to be in a place where she can talk to people face-to-face.
Courtney said there was a benefit to having volunteers who have worked in the medical profession before.
"They have a better sense of what a patient is going through," Courtney said.
Sometimes, however, the volunteers have no idea what kind of impact they have on patients.
After a storm earlier this March, one of Jackson's fences had been knocked down. She called someone to have it fixed. The man came and repaired the fence, but as he was leaving he turned to look at Jackson and asked her if she still volunteered at the hospital.
"I've been ill," she said, "but I plan to go back soon."
He then told her something she didn't expect: "My life changed when you visited me and my wife in the hospital and I will never forget that," he said.
Jackson thinks that part of the reason she has been able to be so active all these years is because it is her purpose to be there for people that need her the most.
She has no plans of stopping.
"So many people ask me when I'm going to quit," Jackson said. "I say when the Lord calls me home."
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