After she retired from Rochester Public Schools, Karen Koeller started a new gig as a volunteer at the Mayo Clinic Store. Officially, she's there to help patients find medical supplies. But perhaps more importantly, she's there to listen. "Each week I hear stories from patients of how the doctors, nurses and staff saved their life," Karen says. The stories "have brought smiles, tears and even goose bumps," she tells us.
Her favorite story, "the one that touched my heart the most," is one Karen heard a few years ago. She was helping a young mother, who asked Karen if she knew anything about the handmade stuffed animals given to pediatric patients before surgery. The woman's 4-year-old son had received an owl, which had quickly become very special to him.
Karen knew all about the animals. In fact, she and her sister, Annette Sjolund, and their mother, Edith Runerson, help make them as volunteers with Mayo's handicraft program. They began stitching items for the cozy fleece menagerie a few years back when Edith had begun showing signs of dementia. Her mother "had always loved to sew," Karen tells us, and the sisters thought "perhaps this could be a project that would give Mom a sense of purpose." Edith was eager to help, and "thousands of animals later, it still gives her the same joy, excitement and sense of pride that she is brightening a sick child's day," Karen says.
And while Edith's health has declined to the point that she can no longer cut or sew, she continues to stuff the animals that Karen and Annette bring to the memory care facility where she lives. "When we bring her animals to stuff, she's always excited and tells us she'll get them done right away," Karen says. "It makes her feel good to help."
In Karen's mind, there's no doubt the animals do help. Remember the little boy and his owl? His mother told Karen that the owl was her son's "constant companion and source of comfort." It peeked out of his backpack, joined the family during meals and story time, and snuggled with him at bedtime. So it was a great surprise — not to mention a powerful lesson in compassion — when her son offered that owl to another patient. He'd noticed a "miserable" looking teenager in a waiting room and was staring at the boy, who clearly "was not feeling well." The mother told her son he shouldn't stare, but that he could go talk to the boy. Her son timidly walked to the older boy "and offered his beloved owl," recounts Karen. The woman's son told the teen, "If you like, you can take my owl with you to see the doctor. It will make you feel better." Which goes to show you can lend a helping hand at any age. Or, as Karen phrased it, "Young or old, we all have the need to touch other people's lives."
In 2015, Mayo Clinic's handicraft volunteers stitched almost 6,000 stuffed animals for pediatric patients. Learn how you can help meet that need or volunteer in other ways here. Then, you can lend a hand by leaving a comment below and sharing this story with others using the social media tools.