Family

Intensive care volunteer stays because she's needed

At Saturday's Breakfast With Santa for patients of Kentucky  Children's Hospital, and UK employees and their families, Betty Stewart carried around a Santa hat she used as a puppet and icebreaker.
At Saturday's Breakfast With Santa for patients of Kentucky Children's Hospital, and UK employees and their families, Betty Stewart carried around a Santa hat she used as a puppet and icebreaker.

Betty Stewart is 89 but doesn't think that sounds "jazzy enough," so she likes to tell people she's "pushing 90."

And that's how the Lexington woman lives her life, pushing to make the most of every moment.

"I just can't sit still," said Stewart.

That's evident as Stewart works her twice-a-week shift as a host of the intensive care waiting room at University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital. She gives directions, answers a bank of three phones and lends an ear when people want to talk.

There is never a still moment. When not tending her other duties, she knits booties and hats for premature babies. And in her spare time away from the hospital, she's a master gardener who frequently brings in flowers from her garden.

She makes felt Christmas stockings for newborns every year and helps hand out presents at an annual party for kids. She's dubbed herself "Mrs. Claus."

"They couldn't do it without me," said Stewart, who turns 90 next summer.

Stewart takes ownership and pride in her work, said Bonnie Thornton, director of volunteer services. One year, Thornton bought Christmas stockings because Stewart was ill. The volunteer was not happy.

"It's my project," Stewart said, with a brief pout when reminded of the incident. The first year she made 10 stockings, each decorated with appliques and adorned with shiny ribbons.

Thornton, who said the hospital is going to need many new volunteers as it continues to expand, said the work Stewart does in the intensive care waiting room is not easy.

"Since we are a trauma center, the folks that are in our waiting areas are in the utmost stress," Thornton said. In the 15-plus years Stewart has been at the hospital, many volunteers have come and gone through the intensive care waiting room. Stewart stays because she knows she is needed, she said.

"It's not the happiest place in the world," said Stewart of the intensive care area. "I do what I can. A lot of people have cried on my shoulder."

"She's a staple there," said Thornton. "She's a really kind, warm and friendly face and very comforting to the families that are in that area."

Stewart also volunteers at The Arboretum. At Halloween, she dresses up as a luna moth and enjoys telling children about the creature's brief life and ability to mysteriously draw in a "boyfriend" with her perfume.

"You have to say boyfriend," Stewart said with a laugh. "The little girls just giggle."

Stewart, a homemaker and horsewoman for most of her life, said that once her six children were grown she wanted to find something to fill her time. She read about the needs of the hospital in her church bulletin and has been volunteering ever since.

Helping others helped her cope with the death of a son to cancer, followed closely by the death of Thomas, her husband of more than 50 years. Although it's been 15 years since they died, tears still come to her eyes when she thinks of it all.

She moves on quickly, saying that a cruise to Mexico helped her get "back on my feet."

She can't imagine not volunteering. Even though she still does a lot of work on the farm, she joked that if she had to stay home, "I'd drive my family crazy."

Her work at the hospital, she said, "gives me a reason to get up in the morning."

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