Retired teacher chalks up 11K volunteer hours at Palos Hospital

Katherine Heafey knows why her husband, Jack, spends so much time volunteering, and it’s not just because the retiree wants to get out of the house.

“Jack is a very social person, so I think it is very helpful to him,” she said. “Volunteering is helpful because it fits right into his personality as a former teacher. He loves to tell jokes and be with people.”

The 89-year-old former high school teacher and Army veteran has spent more than 11,200 hours volunteering at Northwestern Medicine Palos Hospital in Palos Heights in the past 24 years.

“Any wife would say it gives me a bit of a break when he leaves the house,” Katherine Heafey said, adding that they’ve been married since August of 1966. “He comes home from the hospital with stories and goodies, little bits of food. They are always celebrating something there. He loves the department.”

She said another reason he keeps volunteering is because of the short and easy commute: The couple lives across the street from the hospital.

Their children appreciate their father’s commitment to the hospital.

“They have been raised in a tradition of helping others, and they volunteer in the community themselves,” she said, adding that her son has been on the Palos 118 School Board and Lake Katherine board, and her daughter in Minneapolis has done volunteer work in many areas. “They are very much a part of that tradition.”

Jack Heafey first began volunteering as a “transporter,” bringing patients from place to place for procedures, appointments and testing before taking them back to their rooms. Once he developed some health issues, his doctor advised a change, so he started volunteering at the Sterile Supply Processing Department, delivering equipment and supplies such as CD machines, pain pumps and feeding pumps all over the hospital.

“Jack is wonderful. He is really great. I love having him around, said Nancy Kashin, supervisor of that department. “He’s been here through thick and thin. It broke his heart to leave during COVID. When he came back, he was the only one. Nobody else returned.”

Kashin said she enjoys having such a dedicated volunteer to work with and she cherishes his friendship.

“It’s really invaluable — just his attitude alone and his appreciation,” she explained. “He really appreciates us, and we appreciate having him here to do little things that takes (the burden) off of us.”

Heafey, who volunteers for four hours two days per week — a reduction from the 12 hours per week he worked before the pandemic — said he benefits from the time he spends at the hospital.

“It provides exercise, and the social intercourse with people is fun — telling jokes with people. And you learn about life itself. (You have) true conversations and you see how to handle things when they approach (your own life),” he shared.

He has a lot of admiration for the nurses he works with. “You see them on the job. They are amazing women in action. The camaraderie of the girls — you’ve made a friend.”

Heafey, who retired in 1997 after decades of teaching English and journalism at Leyden Township High School, first began volunteering as a docent for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He was inspired to join the hospital’s volunteers after a gallbladder operation at Palos Hospital and his doctor’s suggestion to do so.

Before he began, he got some advice from trusted advisors — his two sisters who were nurses. “When I came here I talked to them. They said don’t bull—- patients. People know they are sick. Have straight conversations with them,” he said.

He recalled taking a female patient to her room. “She said ‘It came back’ and wanted to talk. I figured it was cancer. We sat by her door. … I told her to start at the end of her story and work backward. We talked for 30 minutes. It worked like a charm,” he said. “She was thankful by the end of the conversation.”

Heafey said his main job as a volunteer is delivering equipment. “We have a computer that spits out an order. I go to different floors. And I run errands, such as running to the dock with mail or to the cath lab if they need an instrument.”

From the start, Heafey felt right at home at the hospital.

“I walked into the office on my first day. I met two guys sitting there. I was born on the West Side of Chicago and they were from the South Side,” he recalled. “All three of us went to St. Ignatius (College Prep), classes of ‘51, ‘53 and ‘54. I couldn’t believe it! Three guys from the same school!”

Heafey and a few other volunteers began meeting as the ROMEO Club, aka Retired Old Men Eating Out. For years they spent time at Hackney’s in Palos Park after a shift.

“Everybody looked forward to it. There were five people in the group,” he said with a sad smile. “They’re all gone now.”

Heafey said he got a bit emotional when he was among volunteers recognized last month during National Volunteer Week for having the most hours. “I almost got a tear in my eyes.”

Donna Nadelhoffer, manager of Volunteer Services at Northwestern Medicine Palos Hospital, said its 358 volunteers play “an important role” at the hospital. “They are all the things you could imagine: kind, considerate, hardworking, flexible with schedules, taking the time to give that extraordinary experience.”

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She added that it means a lot to have volunteers like Heafey.

“I feel honored to know Jack and all of our volunteers. Jack is humble and fascinating at the same time. His love for life shines through everyone he meets,” she shared. “His commitment shows his dedication. We all love Jack!”

Nadelhoffer urged other people to volunteer because of the many benefits it offers. It helps the community, “builds friendships, increases socializing and social skills, improves self-esteem, teaches valuable skills, brings joy into your life,” she said.

Information about volunteering at the hospital is at and searching “volunteer.”

Heafey reiterated that spending time as a volunteer is worthwhile. “It’s a hell of a good thing for you. It’s productive in manifesting something,” he shared.

“You feel healthier and meet friends for your own health and welfare. The walking is good at my age,” he added. “You leave feeling good having done something, contributing something.”

Melinda Moore is a freelance reporter for the Daily Southtown.

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