Still in Service at 95
Randolph Man in Fifth Decade as Hospital Volunteer
Melvin “Major” McLaughlin, right, visits with Patsy Huston, of Montpelier, at Gifford Medical Center in Randolph Thursday. McLaughlin volunteers several hours a day and knows most of the patients by name. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Melvin "Major" McLaughlin examines his Marine uniform hat, or cover, while taking a break from making his rounds visiting patients at the hospital. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Melvin “Major” McLaughlin visits with Dorothea Young while licensed nursing assistant Erica Andrews helps to color a background for a puppet show at the Menig Extended Care Facility at Gifford Medical Center in Randolph on Thursday. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Randolph — Patsy Huston was sitting in her bed at Gifford Medical Center on Thursday when a man walked in and told that he loved her.
“You are beautiful,” he said. “As I tell you every day.”
The man, 95-year-old Melvin McLaughlin, is not Huston’s husband. Nor is he a family member or boyfriend. But Huston, a patient, didn’t mind the affection.
Indeed, after three hospital stays in 21/2 years, she knows McLaughlin well and almost comes to expect it.
“I’m so glad that you come to visit me every day,” Huston told him.
McLaughlin has no medical degree, but the former Marine is as much a part of the hospital as any doctor or nurse, Gifford staff and patients say. For more than 40 years, McLaughlin, who goes by “Major” (his military rank), has volunteered at the hospital in Randolph. He visits daily, shuffling though the corridors and visiting with patients and employees for a few minutes at a time.
He is embraced often — a blue button on his volunteer badge offers “free hugs” — and greets everyone with a phrase that has become so well known around Gifford that it is carved into a stone marker by the visitors entrance: “Has anyone today told you that they love you? God does and I do too.”
Coming from another person, those words might seem patronizing or even phony. But Gifford’s chaplain, the Rev. Timothy Eberhardt, said no one doubts McLaughlin’s sincerity.
“He’s present to everybody,” Eberhardt said. “He adds a character of compassion and cheer and hope in this place. You have to use the word ‘blessing.’ ”
Like many community hospitals, Gifford relies on a small army of volunteers — 130 in all — who do everything from running the gift shop to offering Reiki, a Japanese stress reduction therapy. No one, however, makes the kind of daily commitment that McLaughlin does, said volunteer coordinator Julie Fischer.
Nor do they have the same reach. Most volunteers focus only on a specific area of the hospital, Fischer said. McLaughlin tours the entire building, from the birthing wing to the nursing home.
“Most of our volunteers don’t have the scope he does,” Fischer said. “He makes the entire rounds of the hospital every day he is here. He is an all-over kind of person.”
Recently, McLaughlin has become a celebrity. This month, he received a national volunteer service award, called the Salute to Senior Service, and also was the grand marshal in Randolph’s Independence Day parade. He has been the subject of several newspaper and television features and Gifford nurses teased him Thursday about his fame as he was shadowed by a reporter and photographer.
Media attention was not what McLaughlin was seeking when he began volunteering at Gifford four decades ago. He retired in 1967 after 25 years in the Marines and moved to Vermont, where his wife Florence had spent her childhood summers on the family farm. The first few years he was busy building the home on Hollyhock Hill where he still lives today. Eventually, McLaughlin wanted to get involved in the community. Gifford became that opportunity.
“When I retired from the Marine Corps, that was my last paying job that I ever had,” McLaughlin said Thursday at the hospital before heading off to make his rounds. “I never had a second career.”
An ordained Baptist deacon, McLaughlin treats his role at Gifford as though it were a ministry, offering comfort to people and perhaps some inspiration. He began his volunteer service by delivering the newspaper to patients every week, and then later taking down their meal requests. As he walked the hallways, McLaughlin greeted people with the question he would ask his “bride” every day. He would ask Florence whether anyone had told her they loved her. No, she’d answer, no one but him. And he was the only person she wanted to hear it from, she’d say.
McLaughlin met Florence during their service together in the Marines. They later married and raised three daughters. Their union lasted 66 years until Florence’s death on July 4, 2009. She spent the final year of her life at Gifford, in the hospital’s nursing home, Menig Extended Care Facility.
By then, Florence’s health had begun to deteriorate as a result of Alzheimer’s disease. Her condition required care beyond her husband’s abilities. She didn’t want to leave her home, but McLaughlin told her that Menig was the best place for her. She trusted him and agreed to live there. Having spent several decades volunteering at Gifford, he believed what he told her.
“When Florence was here, I was totally confident she would get the best,” he said. “Everyone gets the best here.”
McLaughlin will turn 96 next month. He gets around with the aid of a walker, which he pushes through the hospital every day. Otherwise, he is in good health. He still lives in the house he built and drives himself several miles to Gifford every day.
There is some therapeutic benefit to patients in having McLaughlin around, Gifford staff members said. Particularly for the elderly residents living at Menig, seeing him walk around and live independently is inspiring, said Terry MacDougal, the nursing home’s activities director.
“He provides encouragement,” she said. “Sometimes residents don’t feel like they can walk and then they see him and hear him say, ‘you can do it because God loves you and I love you.’ ”
Not every day is easy for McLaughlin. The corridor from the front lobby to the cafeteria “gets longer and longer each day,” he said. But he was at Gifford Thursday morning. He will probably be there this morning, roaming the halls and telling everyone he sees that he loves them.
“As long as I can do it,” he said. “Amen.”
Chris Fleisher can be reached at 626-727-3229 or firstname.lastname@example.org.