John Hoover has a nickname around the hallways of UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.
“Some of the families referred to me as Grandpa John, and then some of the staff would pick up on it and carry it through,” says John, a longtime volunteer at UPMC Children’s. “I think it’s maybe because I’ve been around so long, people recognize me. I have a bald head and everything. Even these days with the mask and everything, I’ll walk in the hospital with the mask on and people recognize, ‘Oh, Grandpa John, you’re back!'”
John isn’t just one of the most recognizable volunteers at UPMC Children’s. He’s also one of the most present.
For more than 15 years, John has volunteered at UPMC Children’s. These days, he volunteers mostly in the cardiac units. He works there six hours a day, two days a week, and also volunteers for special events at the hospital.
“My wife says if we lived closer, she would see less and less of me,” he says.
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‘It Sparked My Interest’
John retired from his job at U.S. Steel in 2003 and began volunteering soon afterward.
He originally began at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History with its docent program, where volunteers lead visitors through the galleries and tell them about the exhibitions.
As part of Carnegie’s “Museum on the Move” program, John visited schools and hospitals to bring the programs related to dinosaurs, Inuits, Native Americans, and gemology to children who couldn’t visit the museum.
“I did a couple of programs at Children’s, and it sparked my interest in seeing about volunteering at the hospital there,” he says.
Soon after, he was going through the volunteer training program at UPMC Children’s. He began volunteering there officially in 2005.
He first volunteered on the trauma floor. He stayed there until UPMC Children’s moved from its former Oakland location to its current Lawrenceville facility in 2009, when he moved to the cardiac units.
‘They Do Keep You Young’
No two days of volunteering are the same. John typically begins his days in the Child Life Activity Center at UPMC Children’s, helping staff members clean and organize toys for the children. He also helps restock personal protective equipment, including gowns, masks, and gloves, for staff members on the floor.
But the biggest part of John’s work is helping the young patients on the floor. He asks the Child Life staff and the charge nurse if there are priority patients who need extra support.
“I stop in and see if I could be of any help to them,” he says.
“Some of the patients’ families may not be there in the morning or (they’re) getting other siblings off to school,” John added. “So maybe I’ll – what I call – babysit the child for a couple of hours or for maybe five minutes before Mom or Dad comes in.”
If the child is well enough to leave their room, John can take them to the activity center to play. If not, they can spend time together in the room.
“My favorite activity would be in the room playing with them,” says John, whose children are all grown and whose grandchildren are between the ages of 10 and 17 years old. “Getting them to look out the window, getting them to not be as reserved, acting silly.
“They do keep you young. They give me a lot of exercise — bending over and everything. But the one thing I have not learned to do is play video games very well. I’m not adaptive to video games.”
‘Appreciate What You Have’
Volunteering at UPMC Children’s isn’t always easy for John emotionally. By definition, the work involves spending time with sick children. He can remember the names and stories of some who did not survive.
“I will say I have lost some friends at Children’s,” says John, who says he goes to the hospital chapel during difficult times.
“It’s part of the equation,” he says. “I didn’t volunteer so I can go down and get a free cup of coffee or get a cookie. I want to be of help to patients, families, and staff.”
But alongside the hard times, John sees patients get better through life-saving heart transplants, surgeries, treatments, and more.
He had the opportunity to attend the Dr. Bill Neches Heart Camp for Kids. The camp for UPMC Children’s patients with heart conditions takes place each June.
“They get to enjoy camp as a child and not as a patient,” John says. “I get to see these kids out there running and sliding, climbing rock walls, swimming, going on zip lines, being children, and not worrying about that big scar on the chest.”
Moments like that provide perspective for John. He has always enjoyed working with children, going back to when his own kids were growing up.
“These children, some of them have never been able to enjoy running around the bases playing baseball,” John says. “Their hearts aren’t strong enough to do that. I recognize why I do it. I saw the benefits of my kids running around like crazy and driving me crazy, and these children want that chance.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned, and it took time to appreciate, is you should appreciate what you have. Everyone is not as fortunate as we are, or as I am. I have been blessed with three children and six healthy grandchildren. Everyone has their own path to walk, and sometimes it’s just easier to help somebody walk along that path with a simple smile or, ‘Can I help you?'”
‘One of the Highlights of My Life’
Because of COVID-19 restrictions, John couldn’t be in his usual post in the CICU from the spring of 2020 until the fall of 2021.
Even now, he works fewer hours than he did pre-COVID. Patients are still not allowed in the hallways as often for safety reasons.
That hasn’t stopped John from coming back as often as he can.
“Children’s is a very unique place,” says John, whose wife also volunteered at UPMC Children’s in the past and now volunteers with adult programs. “My wife, she would prefer to volunteer with the adults. I prefer the children. You can see positive reactions, and I’ve heard probably more honest responses from children than a lot of adults in my life. They don’t hide anything. They tell you the way it is.”
His relationships extend beyond the patients and their families. He’s built bonds with the doctors, nurses, and other hospital staff members.
“(The Child Life and Creative and Expressive Arts departments) are great,” he says. “What those people do to help the families … I get to do it two, three, four, maybe eight hours a day. They do it eight hours a day, five days a week. And their contributions are 10 times, 100 times more than I’ll be able to achieve.”
Like many of the UPMC Children’s doctors, nurses, and staff members, John does what he does for a simple reason — the children. And “Grandpa John” plans to continue volunteering as long as he can.
“My opportunity to volunteer down at Children’s has been definitely one of the highlights of my life,” he says. “I’ve been doing it for 15-plus years. I wish I would be doing it for 45 years.”
From nutrition to illnesses, from athletics to school, children will face many challenges growing up. Parents often will make important health care decisions for them. We hope to help guide both of you in that journey. UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh is a national leader in pediatric care, ranking consistently on U.S. News & World Report’s Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll. We provide expert treatment for pediatric diseases, along well-child visits, urgent care, and more. With locations across Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia, you can find world-class care close to home. We also work closely with UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital, a national leader in care for newborns and their mothers. Our goal is to provide the best care for your children, from birth to adulthood and beyond. Visit our website to find a doctor near you.