♿‘Maybe I should be pushing you:’ 95-year-old volunteer wheels patients around Orlando hospital

Group of volunteers bank 75 years of service, gain rewarding experiences and friendships

Nobody wants to end up in the hospital, but it’s the caring volunteers that sometimes make it a bit more bearable for patients and their families.

Nobody wants to end up in the hospital, but it’s the caring volunteers that sometimes make it a bit more bearable for patients and their families.

News 6 Insider Guide Crystal Moyer sat down with a group of volunteers at Orlando Health South Lake Hospital in Lake County.

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They are all there for different reasons, but with the same intentions: To be kind during some of the most stressful and downright frightening moments of being in the hospital.

“I’ve been through some sad times here, but it always feels good and it’s the people. The people that make this hospital, all of them,” said volunteer Kay Tripp.

Doctors, nurses and volunteers like this group of ladies. Eighty-two-year-old Kay Tripp, 82-year-old Laura Gomba, 95-year-old Toni Defazio and 78-year-old Donna DiGennaro. Together these women have banked 75 years of service at Orlando Health South Lake Hospital.

“That’s a lot of years,” said Laura Gomba.

Some remember what it was like without specialty health care in Clermont.

“Years ago, if you had chemo or something, you had to drive to downtown Orlando every day. We’re happy to have Orlando Health here, and we’ve kept the small town, the feel,” said Tripp.

The original South Lake Hospital was founded in 1947, undergoing multiple renovations and rebuilds over the next few decades to become the newer facility that sits in Clermont today. Additions are on the way to bring more health care accessibility to Lake County residents.

“It’s surprising because one day you’re here with all the orange groves and within two years the orange groves are gone and it’s all rooftops,” said Gomba.

Each woman was inspired to give back at South Lake Hospital for different reasons. Some looked for a retirement activity.

“I tried golf and it was not a good thing. You’re not supposed to sit on the ground and laugh at your husband’s shot, so I had to find something to do,” said Tripp.

Some were introduced to volunteering through others.

“My friend took me January 1998 to the hospital to volunteer because my daughter felt like I needed to do something,” said Toni Defazio.

Some returned after the loss of a husband.

“When my husband passed this was my way of giving back for everything they did for me. Coming to work as a volunteer at South Lake,” said Gomba.

These volunteers work in different departments of the hospital, helping out with clerical work like answering phones and directing patients at the front desk. Others clean equipment and assist patients with simple errands. They may be doing different tasks, but it’s very evident they are all people-persons.

“Once they’ve had surgery and they come in for rehab, we clean the machines and talking to the patients and getting to know them. I talk a lot of sports,” said Gomba.

“I walk in somebody’s room and say ‘hi, I brought you these flowers’ and they smile. I walk in with a wheelchair and tell them ‘I’m here to walk them out’ and they really smile. I say it’s the best job in the world because everybody’s happy to see me,” said DiGennaro.

Defazio is 95 years young, having volunteered the longest at South Lake.

“There’s so many beautiful people here and people come and they’re so grateful. When I would push people in wheelchairs, they used to always kid me and say ‘maybe I should be pushing you. I say to them ‘do I look that old?’ We would laugh and for a moment, that made them forget what procedure they’re here for,” said Defazio.

“My theory is, if you can make somebody smile when they’re coming or leaving the hospital, you’ve accomplished something,” said Tripp.

Through the program, these volunteers said they don’t get paid in money, but in the form of rewarding experiences and close friendships.

Orlando Health has volunteer programs for teens and adults. Teen volunteers should be between 16-18 years of age. New teen volunteers should apply prior to May 20 for the summer session, as Orlando Health does not accept new teen volunteers in the fall or spring. Placement is on a first-come, first-served basis, is not guaranteed and is assigned to hospital departments and areas based on hospital need.

If you would like to apply to volunteer, please email southlakehospitalfoundation@orlandohealth.com, or call (352) 394-4071, ext. 8771.

About the Author:

Crystal Moyer is a morning news anchor who joined the News 6 team in 2020.