ED volunteer Jim Dixon wins 2013 Elaine M. Hill Award

To natives of North Carolina, Jim Dixon may sound like an outsider—the 84-year-old hails from Long Island, New York, and has the accent to prove it—but to the Emergency Department, Dixon is a core member of the team and an integral part of the care delivered to patients and their families.

ED volunteer Jim Dixon wins 2013 Elaine M. Hill Award click to enlarge Jim Dixon, Emergency Department volunteer and 2013 Elaine M. Hill Award winner for Distinguished Volunteer Service

by Zach Read - zread@unch.unc.edu

Last week approximately fifty people, including doctors, nurses, staff, volunteers, family, and friends, gathered in the Emergency Department (ED) to honor Jim Dixon, the 2013 Elaine M. Hill Award winner for Distinguished Volunteer Service. Flanked by Gary Park, president of UNC Hospitals, and Brian Goldstein, MD, MBA, executive vice president and chief operating officer of UNC Hospitals, Dixon was presented with a gift for his volunteer service, which comprises 20 years and an astonishing number of hours spent aiding UNC Hospitals personnel and patients and their families.

“Six thousand hours leaves me speechless,” Goldstein said at the ceremony. “It’s an awesome contribution to this place.”

Dixon’s UNC Hospitals’ volunteer career began in Patient Relations in the early 1990s after he moved with his wife to Fearrington Village. He’d retired from his family’s car dealership, where he worked for 45 years, and he looked forward to enjoying the warmer weather and relaxed pace of life in North Carolina. But his retirement plans didn’t include simply putting his feet up—Dixon’s goal was to spend time focusing on the needs of others.

“I knew I wanted to help people when I retired,” said the Hill Award winner.

During his time volunteering in Patient Relations, Dixon followed up with patients to make sure their experiences were satisfactory, but he admits that he wanted more action. He started at the greeter’s desk in the ED, where patients came in off the street, and today he escorts patients to their assigned rooms and comforts patients’ families, among other duties.

“It’s big and large and very busy,” he said of the Emergency Department. “When someone is in a car accident, the family needs a direction to go immediately, not later. We step in and help out. I try to assure them that everything is being taken care of and that somebody will be right with them to discuss their concerns and problems.”

Dixon’s warm, outgoing personality is an invaluable asset to the department—colleagues acknowledged that his demeanor makes it easier for him to engage with patients and their families, many of whom are dealing with serious health issues when they arrive in the ED.

“He’s always concerned about the patients in the waiting room,” said Jeff Phillips, RN, CNIV, who supervises volunteers and has worked with Dixon for 19 years. “He’s a very nice guy, he’s friendly to everyone, and he never forgets your name.”

Key to Dixon’s success as a volunteer has been his ability to understand the situation that patients and their families are facing.

“They’re often in distress when they get here,” said Dixon. “They don’t know which way to turn. It’s not easy for them, so that’s when we have to, hopefully, be strong enough to show a little comfort.”

Wesley Wallace, MD, associate professor of emergency medicine, has worked with Dixon during the entirety of Dixon’s tenure in the ED and has witnessed firsthand his ability to communicate with patients and staff.

“He’s such a great advocate for the patients,” Wallace said. “He’s very good with comforting them. And he’s very helpful with the staff when things are crazy, which they are with some frequency. He helps to relieve the stress for everyone. You can always depend on Jim.”

During his tenure, Dixon has also mastered the rhythm of the department.

“Jim knows how to keep the flow of the patients moving,” said Phillips. “If anything goes wrong, he comes and asks questions about what to do to improve the process, and whenever he needs anything, he knows exactly where to go to get it.”

In addition to his work in the ED, Dixon has enjoyed his other role at UNC Hospitals: Santa Claus. In fact, Dixon was the first person at UNC Hospitals to perform as Santa, and for ten years he was the only Santa—now several Santas go from floor to floor offering stuffed animals to patients and spreading holiday cheer. Dixon fondly remembers donning the costume and traveling via helicopter to visit employees’ children at a UNC Health Care daycare center a few miles away.

Winning the Hill Award is an important achievement, not only because it celebrates Dixon’s work, but because it highlights the volunteer team in the ED. Volunteers have become an essential part of the cooperative effort that helps the department function more smoothly.

“Volunteers are critical to the ED,” said Phillips. “I don’t know what we’d do without them. They’re very good about bringing patients back, checking on patients to see if they need anything while they’re waiting, bringing them blankets. We have by far the best volunteers in the entire hospital.”

The strength of the volunteer services program extends beyond the department to UNC Health Care as a whole—the team in Volunteer Services looks at each volunteer individually and searches for the appropriate departmental fit for him or her.

“We let them tell us what their strengths are and what they’re committed to, we put them in those areas, and they become part of the team,” said Linda Bowles, director of volunteer services at UNC Health Care. “That’s what cements the strength of our program.”

The importance of Volunteer Services and the seamlessness in which volunteers, staff, and doctors and nurses work together is evident in the ED.

“The team is not only the volunteers, but the staff members and other volunteers that celebrate Jim and welcome the recognition he so deserves,” Bowles said of the ceremony honoring Dixon.

When asked about his future, Dixon affirms that he’s committed to the ED and that he’s grateful for the experiences he’s had so far.

“I’ve been able to help people with needs and problems,” he said. “I have learned a lot about people and care, and that’s very important to me. I’m going to keep volunteering as long as I can.”

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