Fifty years have passed since Zaytoun, 91, did her first shift as a volunteer at Rex, and she’s still donning a blue smock every Monday as a volunteer in the gift shop she helped open 34 years ago.
Thelma Zaytoun’s favorite Rex Healthcare story is set at 4 a.m. in the streets of Raleigh, on a city bus heading from the old Rex building on St. Mary’s Street to its current location.
She’s helping move the entire maternity ward, and all of the moms are handcuffed to their babies’ cribs to avoid accidental switches.
It’s one of countless stories the Zaytoun tells with a sparkling eye and sharp wit, covering the gamut of hospital life – at times sad, uplifting and downright strange.
“You see everything in a place like this,” she says.
Fifty years have passed since Zaytoun, 91, did her first shift as a volunteer at Rex, and she’s still donning a blue smock every Monday as a volunteer in the gift shop she helped open 34 years ago. A scholarship in her name has helped dozens of nurses earn advanced degrees.
She was been honored by Rex and by the state for her work, and recently earned a mention on the floor of the General Assembly noting her 50th anniversary at Rex.
David Strong, president of Rex Healthcare, says Zaytoun’s service, in itself, has made a great contribution. But her longevity has also provided a link to the hospital’s past.
Strong says Zaytoun’s stories are weaved through the hospital’s cultural fabric, having inspired and educated generations of volunteers and staff.
“Thelma is one of the special people who helps keep the culture alive, keeps the fire going,” Strong says. “Her stories celebrate the caring, the empathy, the understanding, all those characteristics that we want our co-workers and our patients and our physicians to possess.”
Zaytoun’s perennial cheer and fondness for humor have served her well throughout her many years of volunteering, brightening dark moments for patients, families and staff.
“I always entertain myself first,” she says. “Then I spread it around a little bit.”
Focused on children
Zaytoun grew up in Columbia, S.C., the youngest of five children. Her father died young, and Zaytoun says she learned a lot from watching her mother raise her family alone. She remained close to her mother, from whom she says she inherited a sense of compassion for others.
“She was the warmest person,” Zaytoun says. “My mother had so much common sense. Not educated sense, but heart sense.”
Zaytoun says as a girl, she considered a nursing career, but her mother disapproved. She went to an all-girls Catholic school, where she played on the basketball team, though the nun who coached it was not particularly interested in athletics.
“She didn’t care if you got the ball in the basket as long as you kept those britches down,” she says.
Her brothers and sisters went on to college, but she didn’t have much interest in it.
She married after World War II and moved to New Bern with her husband, a Marine who had graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. All four of her children would eventually earn degrees there, and Zaytoun follows the Tar Heels closely.
Zaytoun says that, like her mother, she was intent on making her children the center of her life.
“I would eat bread crumbs before I’d let anyone raise my children but me,” she says.
By the time the family moved to Raleigh, where her husband opened an insurance business, Zaytoun’s youngest child was starting kindergarten. The active mom found herself bored and lonely.
A friend from church, whose husband was a doctor, suggested volunteering at Rex.
“She came to my house and brought me to the old hospital on St. Mary’s,” Zaytoun says. “They didn’t have a big volunteer service back then. It was mostly doctors’ wives that came in to help.”
A few years later, she helped raise funds for the new hospital building on Lake Boone Trail. When time came to move, the hospital borrowed city buses for some patients; those who couldn’t walk rode in moving vans, their hospital beds rolled into the back.
“I was in the back of the bus with those babies just watching to see if anything happened to them,” she says. “It was very unique.”
She carried a banner that read, “I’m moving Rex Hospital.” She still has one of the T-shirts that marked the occasion.
‘They gave me everything’
Sitting outside the gift shop where she volunteers, Zaytoun can point to where those buses arrived. She remembers construction of most of the buildings around her, including one where a piece of medical equipment was so big that they installed it before they put on the roof. She notes that the waiting room where she sits has new furniture.
She calls Rex her home away from home, and she has worked in most parts of it. For most of the time, she says, she would just show up around the hospital asking in her cheery voice, “Is there something I can do for you?”
She started out in the maternity ward, checking in on new moms and helping however she could – bringing drinks or pillows, helping make phone calls.
She worked with patients and their families in the hospital’s cancer center for years, where the stories tend to be more poignant – the patient who cried tears of joy at being taken outside in a wheelchair, the 21-year-old woman for whom Zaytoun arranged an in-hospital baptism.
She has also answered the phones, gathered used trays from patients’ rooms, written letters for them. She’s stocked Band-Aids and defrosted refrigerators. She’s organized baby showers for pregnant nurses, and is known for buying hospital employees candy or other items from the gift shop.
On her 45th anniversary, her husband was considering buying her a ring, and she asked him to fund a scholarship for nurses instead.
She does most of her Christmas shopping at the gift shop and meets her friends at the cafeteria for lunch. She’s been a patient at Rex twice, both times with pneumonia.
Far from bringing her down, she says being around sick people makes her appreciate life. And finding an outlet for her nurturing personality gives her days meaning.
“Coming to Rex Hospital made my life wonderful,” she says. “I gave Rex nothing, and they gave me everything.”
She’s been known to get in a joke or two at the expense of hospital leaders, as well as the changing technology at the gift store. She refers to the current cash register as “public enemy No. 1.”
But she also takes service seriously, and has passed that ideal on to her children.
One son, a dentist, sees patients for free or reduced rates one morning a week. Her daughter works one day a week at a low-cost home for patients’ families in Winston-Salem.
As for her own volunteering, Zaytoun is now down to just three hours a week. But she has no plans to quit.
By Marti Maguire – N&O Correspondent