Sam wasn’t meant to come to Jacksonville. The Louisiana native had never been more than 35 miles from home when he boarded a train in the late 1940s that, according to the US Navy, would send him to New London, Connecticut. One logistical mix-up later and Sam found himself de-boarding his train in sunny Jacksonville, Florida.
“But the Navy doesn’t make mistakes,” Sam says, a wry smile curling across his mouth. The team he was supposed to join in New London performed their submariner training in an old test sub. One day, that sub broke in half during a training exercise. All the men were lost in the accident. As Sam puts it, “The good Lord intervened and sent me to Jacksonville instead.”
After a brief move back home to Louisiana in 1949, Sam returned to Jacksonville in 1950. He met his future wife the following year, and together they set roots down in northeast Florida. In the late 1970s, they began volunteering at St. Vincent’s; Sam as a shuttle driver, his wife in the ICU. As the years went by, Sam’s wife began developing health issues which caused them both to stop volunteering. Her health issues culminated in a bout of pneumonia that would claim her life in March 2008. Sam was devastated. Then, one night, something changed.
“I was having a pity party for myself one Thursday night a few months after my wife passed. I decided to call an old friend I hadn’t spoken to in years. Her husband had passed away not too long before, so she knew what I was going through.” They spoke on the phone every Thursday night at 8 p.m. for about eight months before they decided they needed to rekindle their friendship in person.
“I drove to her house and we had a bacon-tomater sandwich and iced tea,” Sam recalls with a charming Southern drawl. “It was lovely.”
Soon, something much more than friendship blossomed between the two. Sam asked her to marry him and she more than happily accepted. When Sam soon after found out he had prostate cancer, he tried to rescind his offer; she would have none of it.
“I told her, ‘I don’t think it’s a good idea for us to get married now.’ Without hesitating, she said, ‘You spent all those years taking care of your first wife when she was sick. I’ll take care of you now.”
His treatments were successful, and the two were happily married until November 2015. Sadly, his second wife passed away that month, leaving Sam grief-stricken again. With no one else to turn to, he remembered something he had given up years before: driving the shuttle at St. Vincent’s.
Sam, now 90 years old, returned to St. Vincent’s Riverside as a volunteer shuttle driver at the beginning of 2016. He works every Friday, shuttling patients and visitors from the parking garage to the main hospital. Sam says the good, warm feeling he gets from helping others has helped him move on from both of his wives’ unfortunate passing.
“I see people from out of town who don’t know their way around such a big hospital, and I know that feeling. I was new to Jacksonville once, too. So if I can help them get their bearings in any way, I’m happy to.”
Barbara is no stranger to the awful anxiety of not knowing what’s next. For 27 of her 35 years with CSX, she worked with employees who were being relocated. Watching families cope with such life-altering news for more than two decades helped prepare her for how she now volunteers her time as a navigator in the Josephine H. Bryan Breast Health Center at St. Vincent’s Riverside.
But it goes much deeper for Barbara. In 2001, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I was blown away when the doctor told me the news. I hadn’t even developed lumps—it was just a dark spot. Thankfully my doctor was diligent and decided to examine it.” Because of her doctor’s diligence, they caught the cancer early. Six weeks of radiation later and Barbara’s cancer had entered remission, where it has remained to this day. Still, she remembers the panic and fear she felt during that time.
“I was a complete basket case waiting for updates,” she says with a slight chuckle.
Barbara, 75, understands the fear and unease patients arriving for mammograms feel because she’s been there. That’s why she likes devoting her free time to helping these patients in any way she can.
“I felt a void in my life after retiring and wanted to fill it with something meaningful. Knowing I’m helping these people cope with potentially devastating news is more than I could ask for.” When she’s not volunteering, Barbara likes to stay active as much as possible. Her husband and she plan to take their newly purchased RV to state parks throughout Florida as the weather warms up. But no matter how far she may travel, she’ll always find her way back to St. Vincent’s.
Caregiving is nothing new to Leslie. The 43-year-old mother of two has raised one daughter to adulthood and is currently raising a younger son while working a full-time job. Before that, she was the legal guardian for her uncle who had Down syndrome.
Initially, Leslie was helping her grandmother with her uncle’s care. After her grandmother passed away, Leslie’s mother and aunt denied the opportunity to take on their brother’s care. So Leslie took on the mantle of guardian herself. She presented her case to be legal guardian in court and won. While it meant adding extra strain on her already busy life, Leslie didn’t balk. She couldn’t let her tag team partner down.
“Ever since I was younger, my uncle and I would always call each other our tag team partner. When the judge asked my uncle who he wanted to be his guardian, he smiled and said, ‘My tag team partner!’”
Leslie happily took care of her uncle until he passed in May 2015. The loss was devastating, and she wasn’t sure how to cope.
Leslie had volunteered off and on since she was a teenager, but between raising her own children and looking after her uncle, she just didn’t have the time for it. After her uncle’s passing, she realized there was a hole that needed to be filled in her life. And so she started volunteering in patient relations at St. Vincent’s Riverside once a week in January. Leslie says she loves being able to relate to the patients in a time of fear and uncertainty for them.
“Whatever I can do to make these patients happy, I’ll do it— within reason, obviously, depending on their conditions. You want two ice creams? I’ll get you two ice creams,” she says with a laugh.
Her willingness to always add more to her already busy life speaks to who Leslie is at her core. In her mind, there’s always somebody else she could devote her time to in a meaningful way. That’s something her uncle taught her—if not through words, then through what he meant to her.
“My uncle didn’t have an ill bone in his body. I aspire to be like that,” Leslie says. “There are too many people out there who won’t help—I’ve seen that firsthand. So if I can give my time to somebody else and really, truly help them, even if it’s minor, I will.”