“I just fell in love with it,” 35-year Rockville Centre resident Sue Keller said of her two decades of volunteer service at South Nassau Communities Hospital in Oceanside. “I call it my oxygen. It’s essential to me.”
Keller, 62, who entered the hospital’s volunteer program in 1998, was honored in December for reaching 24,000 hours of service. She began as a “listener,” and now sports the title of “compassionate companion” on her identification badge as part of the spiritual care department.
Holding a master’s degree in deafness rehabilitation, her dream of providing therapy to deaf clients never quite came to fruition, but she said she has been happy to help countless patients over the years as a volunteer.
“She can take the worst situation and turn it around and make you feel calm,” said Michael Hirschhorn, a former South Nassau employee that would often cross paths with Keller in the hospital. “… She’s always there.”
Keller is one of South Nassau’s 370 volunteers, who Hirschhorn said are essential to easing tension for the staff and helping patients with non-medical needs. Living within walking distance to the hospital, she works four days and about 25 hours per week, adding that she spends Tuesdays and Thursdays in an office completing various administrative duties. On Mondays and Saturdays, she hangs out with patients, fetching them magazines, bringing them water or just being a good friend. “Anything we could do to make the patients’ day a little bit nicer,” she said.
“Words don’t really do it justice,” Keller added of the job. “It’s beyond gratifying, rewarding … and it’s definitely a two-way street. I’ve learned so much. It’s so enriching.”
Keller has built lasting friendships during her time at South Nassau, recalling a patient that was terminally ill, who she had grown very close with, before she died in 2009. “I was graced to have her in my life for 17 months, and I will never forget her,” she said. “Every now and then I will play her voicemail so she’s still with me.”
Hirschhorn described Keller as “very friendly, very upbeat, very sweet, very caring,” noting that she would do anything for you. He then found the word he had been looking for. “…She’s really an angel.”
At about 24,150 hours — nearly three continuous years of her life spent serving patients — Keller has no intention of slowing down. “They’re going to have to push me out,” she said. “There’s no reason why I would want to stop.”