Ben Tabakiin's hospital volunteerism stretches 50 years

April 9th, 2009 by Clint Cooper in Life Entertainment

If there is an elderly hand to hold or a child to cheer on, Ben Tabakin is not ready for the recliner.

Long retired after a 40-year career in the textiles industry, he continues to volunteer at least 15 hours a week at Memorial Hospital.

"It's the most rewarding thing one might do," said Mr. Tabakin, 79, of his hospital volunteerism that stretches back 50 years to a suggestion a doctor gave him following his newborn son's four-month medical struggle.

Shortly after son David's birth, he said, the baby had to have multiple operations. Later, in wanting to thank the doctors and nurses at New York City's Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center who saved his son's life, he was told the best way was to give back.

Beginning the next week and since, he has volunteered at Columbia-Presbyterian, Good Samaritan Medical Center in West Palm Beach, Fla., St. Mary's Medical Center in West Palm Beach, Palms West Hospital in West Palm Beach and Memorial Hospital here.

"I'm not a particularly religious man," Mr. Tabakin said, "but in some ways I feel like I'm doing work to help God."

He hasn't taken the easy way out, either.

At Columbia Presbyterian, Mr. Tabakin volunteered in the same unit that served his son. For five or six years, he took the Friday night shift, leaving from work and returning home after midnight.

When he retired and moved to West Palm Beach, he stayed home for 10 days before his wife suggested he go back to volunteering. Starting again in the neonatal intensive care unit, he eventually moved to the pediatrics floor, joined a hospital board of directors and even represented the hospital at a regional gathering.

Mr. Tabakin's wife, Sandy, also got into the act, serving as a teacher of hospital protocol for children's groups who came to Good Samaritan or St. Mary's medical centers on field trips.

His next volunteer field was pediatric oncology, which he called "the most rewarding thing I've ever done in my life." He stayed there more than 10 years, working 40 to 45 hours a week.

"To be with children who are a lot of times deathly ill, to make them laugh or smile is very heartwarming," Mr. Tabakin said.

Chatting with and comforting parents in the same unit also was gratifying, he said. When parents felt safe to leave their children with him, that was a compliment, he said.

When the Tabakins moved to Lookout Mountain, he volunteered first - for more than a year - in the cancer wing at Memorial Hospital, even being named the oncology unit's Employee of the Quarter. More recently, he has served in the hospital's Hospice of Chattanooga unit.

"Memorial has been richly blessed with a number of volunteers who have given so much of their time and talent," said Jean Payne, the hospital's volunteer services director. "As a result, they are part of the Memorial family and have adapted to the changes of health care with us and continue to share their passion in serving others."

At the hospital, Mr. Tabakin said, he tries to induce a laugh or be a presence. Recently, he said, an elderly patient who was slipping away had no one with her in the room, so he held her hand as she died.

Not long after he began volunteering at Memorial, he received a note from the daughter of a patient. She thanked him for making him laugh for the last time in his life.

"I knew I was in the right place," he said. "You always get more than you give."