When Lorena Collins accepted a friend’s invitation five decades ago, she had no idea what she was getting into.
“I started volunteering by accident, really,” the North Hall woman said of her decision to volunteer at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in 1962. “I hadn’t lived here too long and (my friend) wanted to volunteer and didn’t want to go by herself. So I went with her.”
When Collins began volunteering at the hospital in affiliation with the Red Cross, she remembers how the now-sprawling complex was just a “little T-shaped building,” consisting of five stories in all.
With the Red Cross, Collins and her friend manned the bloodmobiles and delivered lab reports and the mail. When the volunteer services program was placed under the umbrella of the hospital’s Medical Auxiliary, Collins and her friend continued to donate their time.
“She eventually quit, and I’m still there,” Collins said. “I just stayed with it. I liked it.”
The records of Collins’ volunteering activities don’t begin until 1963, but on paper, she’s volunteered for a whopping 52 years, donating more than 25,000 hours of her personal time to the medical facility.
At age 88, the Mississippi native still mans the information desk in the South Tower every Monday. Even without the friend who originally got her into it, Collins plans on continuing to volunteer until she can’t.
“I just love our hospital,” Collins said. “It’s been very good to me and to my family. I do what little bit I can to help them.”
Having two families
Born in Vicksburg, Miss., Collins grew up just outside the nearby town of Meridian. Her father owned a service station and grocery store along U.S. 80. Her love of people began inside her father’s store.
“I was used to being around people,” Collins said. “I just liked people.”
Collins and her husband, Cecil W. Collins, met in Meridian, Miss., but they wouldn’t stay there. Cecil W. Collins worked as an official with the Social Security Administration, and his job took the couple from Mississippi to Athens, where their two sons were born. The young family then moved to Miami, then to Macon and finally to Gainesville.
“It’s an interesting world, and I’m just glad I’m living in Gainesville,” Collins said. “I’ve really enjoyed living here. I’ve met some wonderful people.”
Lynne Allen, the hospital’s director of volunteer services, can’t conjure up an image of Collins that doesn’t involve love for her family, which only makes her longstanding contribution to the hospital all the more meaningful.
“I think about the times that she came in through the years and volunteered on Thanksgiving — I thought that was really above and beyond,” Allen said. “She has family, and family is very important to her.”
Throughout her years of volunteering, Collins raised her sons and saw both of them graduate from Georgia Tech. Her husband died in 2006. But through all of life’s tribulations, it was the people at the hospital — the doctors, nurses and other volunteers — who kept Collins coming back.
“After a while, it gets to be like family,” Collins said. “The people over there, most of them know me, and you just enjoy seeing them.”
Repaying a favor
For all the times she’s been there, Collins will never forget when the hospital was there for her in return.
The week before the medical center was scheduled to open its intensive care unit, Collins’ mother, who was living with her and her husband, suffered a cardiac arrest in the hospital. According to her doctor, Collins’ mother was dead for five minutes before the staff revived her.
“The unit wasn’t open yet, but they had the equipment,” Collins said. “They brought the defibrillator in and shocked her and got her back. She lived several more years, and it was because the hospital had those things.”
When Collins’ husband started to experience numbness from his feet to his waist, doctors discovered he was suffering from pernicious anemia. The diagnosis prevented Collins’ husband from being sent to a hospital in Atlanta.
As Collins didn’t drive at the time and her mother had just come to live with the couple, it was a great relief.
“I was so grateful because I couldn’t look after my mother and (my husband) too, and I couldn’t drive to Atlanta,” Collins said.
It’s just another reason Collins delights in the medical center’s many successes.
“I am so proud of our hospital, that they do care and they are giving the services they give,” Collins said. “That No. 1 thing that we have is precious to me because we have it.”
Representing the volunteer spirit
Currently, Collins’ 52-year record is eclipsed only by one former volunteer, Nell Whelchel Wiegand. Weigand, a founding member of The Medical Center Auxiliary and founding chairwoman of The Medical Center Foundation, volunteered at the hospital for 60 years before she died in May 2011.
But Collins couldn’t care less about records. Allen said it’s just in her nature to keep giving.
“I know she represents the core values of the organization, and when I think about one of the core values — respectful compassion — I think that really conveys what she is to people while she’s serving here as a volunteer, and just on an everyday basis,” Allen said.
Collins plans to keep going until she can’t.
“When I get to the point that I’m not helping, then I don’t want to volunteer anymore,” she said. “I sure hate to get up at 6:30 a.m. on Monday morning a lot of times, but then once I get there I’m so glad I’m there.”
The octogenarian still drives herself to the hospital and to games of Bridge several times a month. She most looks forward to eating lunch on Mondays with other volunteers, a group of her friends who celebrates birthdays together.
“If I stayed at home I would just atrophy, so I have to make myself keep going,” Collins said. “When you get as old as I am, you do have to push yourself sometimes. But I’ve enjoyed every bit of it.”
More than 50 years after accepting an invitation from a friend, Collins wouldn’t spend any of those 25,000 hours differently.
“All of it has been good for me,” she said. “I would miss it, really, if I didn’t do it, and I hope they’d miss me.”