One afternoon, in the fall of 1983, Karen Fox received a phone call from her doctor’s office. “Your tests are abnormal” she was told. Her mind and pulse began to race. Had the cancer returned? Devastated by the news Karen glanced down to regain some composure, and there on her desk, on the back of a medical magazine, was a photograph. A little girl held the hand of a physician, and in her other hand was a doll – Raggedy Ann.
At that moment Karen’s boss, Dr. Nelson, walked in. Karen was still in a daze from the bad news, but the photograph had stirred something deep, a memory of hope. And something else, an alchemical instinct – to turn the lead of adversity into the gold of helping others. “What do you think of this idea?” asked Karen. Dr. Nelson, a conservative physician in his seventies, leaned in to listen, unsuspecting. “What if I dressed up as Raggedy Ann, and visited the patients across the street at Cottage Hospital on my lunch hour?”
Karen had worked as a medical assistant and administrator for Dr. Nelson for 15 years. He knew her well. She was reserved and had never dressed up in a costume in her life, even for Halloween. Despite this, he managed to conceal his amazement and simply asked, “Well what is your intention?” “If I’m invited into a patient’s room,” Karen responded, “my hope is that I could lift his spirits, his heart might open, and he would know that someone cared. – “I think it’s a great idea,” said Dr. Nelson, “Why don’t you call Cottage Hospital administration right now and see when you can get started.”
Karen made the call, and so began her adventure. Cutting through red tape took almost six months, but eventually, on Valentine’s Day, 1984, with knees knocking inside her bloomers, Karen took her first steps as Raggedy Ann, across Bath Street and into the hospital. The very first patient she visited had throat cancer. He couldn’t speak. His two sisters, who invited Raggedy Ann to see him, explained that he hadn’t spoken for eight months. “But would you please come in and say hello. Maybe your bright smile will cheer him up.”
Karen agreed, took a deep breath, and stepped into a miracle. “Hi it’s Raggedy Ann,” she whispered, not wanting to wake him if he were sleeping. Would you like a visitor today?” Looking up to see if he heard correctly, he began to smile, and nodded his consent. Karen told him her story: that this was her first day volunteering as Raggedy Ann, she was nervous, and how she hoped that this visit with him would give her the courage to continue. Then, with a full heart, and at a loss for other words, she said to him “I love you.” His eyes gleamed, and a tear rolled down his cheek. Contact was made. As Karen walked out of the room into the hallway, she heard a faint, gravelly voice call out to her from inside the room; “I love you too Raggedy Ann!” Stopped in her tracks, humbled by the voice of a man without one, she knelt and wept.
Karen knew only too well that this was confirmation. She was on the right path. “Well, you’ve got me God” she prayed. Then, getting to her feet, still in awe of what she had just experienced, she continued on her rounds. Today, Karen’s mission continues.
35 Years of Caring
How does one build a program that reliably lifts the spirit and consistently delivers compassion, hope, joy, and encouragement to a patient’s bedside all year round?
For the past 35 years, Karen Fox and her all-volunteer Adventures in Caring team have done just this with their Raggedy Ann & Andy visiting program for hospitals and nursing homes.
In their darkest hour, feeling alone, afraid, and in pain, thousands of patients encounter something they never expected: “Hi, it’s Raggedy Ann, would you like a visit?”
So begins the adventure, as a patient invites Raggedy Ann to visit. Little does he know the love, the kindness, the life-affirming appreciation and acceptance that will be given to him – at the exact moment, when he needs it the most. More than just rag dolls, the volunteer Raggedys are support for the soul in illness.
In 1991, Adventures in Caring was the first organization in the Tri-Counties to be recognized by President G. H. W. Bush with his Point of Light Award for outstanding community service.
Doctors began to ask, “How do you train your volunteers so well? Can you teach our people the same skills?”
So Karen and her husband Simon took another step in their adventure. They developed a workshop, wrote a book, and produced videos to pass on their communication skills. Now, these learning tools are used by more than 5,000 organizations nationwide.
Hospitals, hospices, churches, charities, and colleges use them to teach staff, students, and volunteers how to communicate with compassion.
Over 190 guests celebrated Adventures in Caring’s Silver Anniversary at a luncheon in March 2009 in Santa Barbara. Coming full circle, Debbie Lupeika, MD, drove from Redding, Calif. to talk about how her experience volunteering as Raggedy Ann shaped her medical career and influences the way she practices medicine today – twenty years later. In addition to her family practice, Dr. Lupeika currently teaches medical residents at Mercy Hospital in Reading and she uses the Adventures in Caring videos to develop in her students the art of compassionate listening. In the first twenty-five years of service, the Raggedy Ann and Andy volunteers have made one million heart-to-heart visits with patients and their family members. For the next twenty-five years, Adventures in Caring plans to see that number of visits rapidly grow. At the same time, it plans to complete the Adventures in Caring five-phase long-term strategic plan that makes the practice of compassion: 1) visible, 2) teachable, 3) practical, 4) measurable, and 5) replicable throughout the world, in the service of healing.