THE VOLUNTEER

Win Finegan, age 76: “It’s OK to cry as long as you aren’t the person who has to be consoled.”

By Rick Ruggles / World-Herald staff writer

Monday, November 23, 2015


Win Finegan’s volunteer work with the sick and dying washes away the regret she felt for years over the sterile relationship she had with her parents.
As a young woman a half-century ago, she never said “I love you” or “Thank you” or “I’ll miss you” to her parents in their final days. She didn’t hold hands with them, and didn’t pat them or stroke them. It wasn’t out of anger, for her parents were good providers, solid people. But expressions of love and discussions of feelings just didn’t happen in her Irish Catholic family.
Now Finegan hopes to show love to others in small ways — pushing hospice patients in wheelchairs around the Douglas County Health
Center’s garden, and providing coffee, juice, a blanket or a conversation for patients waiting to get chemotherapy, blood tests or checkups in the Nebraska Medical Center cancer clinic.
The people she volunteers to serve are “helping me to heal, too, from 50 years of not allowing myself to feel,” Finegan said.
Small and tactful, with short gray hair and a quiet manner, Finegan walks almost imperceptibly around the waiting room at the Nebraska Medical Center’s Peggy D. Cowdery Patient Care Center.
She offers to fetch beverages. While doing that, she discovers if patients want to talk. You can tell, she said.
One man talks to her about cars he has owned. Another asks her to sit with him and tells her that his dog has died. Finegan sits with her hands on her knees, listening, nodding, interjecting a bit here and there.
Some patients use walkers, some have wheelchairs. Some wear caps or scarves to cover bald heads and some wear masks that cover their mouths and noses.

Win Finegan, 76, chats with Michelle Parrish while the Omahan receives medication to fight a neurological disease. MATT MILLER/THE WORLD-HERALD

The Thankful Edition
All around you, in towns big and small, people are quietly performing selfless deeds to make our communities stronger. The good life? You bet. Today we’d like you to meet just a few of these everyday heroes.
The Mentor: Rachael Johnson
The Teacher: JJ Ventura
The Coach: Gannie Clark
The Builder: Steve Skidmore

If the waiting room isn’t full, she visits the small rooms where drugs are intravenously administered to patients.
Michelle Parrish, 61, received medication to fight a neurological disease, and she and Finegan talked about broken hips. Parrish broke hers in January and Finegan fractured hers about 20 years ago while riding her bicycle on a snow-slickened street in Elmwood Park.
“It was a year before I stopped worrying about falling,” Finegan told Parrish. “Then spring came and all the blossoms and I thought, ‘If I don’t get on the bike now, I never will.’?”
Finegan, 76, rides her bicycle to her volunteer assignments, weather permitting. If the weather’s bad, she walks from her home on the east edge of the Dundee neighborhood or takes the day off.
She gave up her yellow Volkswagen bug in 1985 and hasn’t had a car since.
“That’s my car,” she said, pointing to the bicycle on her porch.
She sometimes surprises with her sense of humor.
“I always like to tell people how old I am because I think less will be expected of me,” she said.
In the cancer clinic waiting room recently, Finegan talked with Patricia Boylan, who waited for her 71-year-old husband, Michael.
“I remember you last time because we always come on Mondays,” Patricia Boylan, a Missourian, said to Finegan, who typically spends Monday mornings volunteering at the med center cancer clinic.
“It’s nice — very nice — to volunteer your time like that,” Boylan said.
“I hope all goes well today,” Finegan said.
Michael Boylan has been, remarkably, free of lymphoma for three years now and was in for a checkup. He said he hadn’t been expected to survive, and while he gushed with praise for the care he had received, he would have rather been elsewhere this morning. Or any morning.
“This is a bad ward,” he said of the clinic where people with cancer come. “This isn’t where you want to be.”
But it’s exactly where Finegan wants to be. She was the youngest of five siblings, earned a bachelor’s degree from now-defunct Barat College in Illinois, and a master’s degree in film, radio and television from Northwestern University, also in Illinois.

Finegan volunteers at the Nebraska Medical Center cancer clinic, visiting with patients and offering to bring them a drink while they wait for treatment. MATT MILLER/THE WORLD-HERALD

She taught classes briefly and did secretarial work and bookkeeping before friends in Omaha prompted her to move here in 1972.
Finegan calls herself frugal, rarely eats out and said she decided years ago to “reduce my needs and eliminate my wants so I could live simply.” She has kept meticulous track of her earnings in a ledger book for years.
Besides her volunteer work, she also serves as a “standardized patient” at Creighton University and the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Standardized patients generally act out certain symptoms and conditions so health care students can work on interviewing and diagnostic skills.
She’s paid to be a standardized patient and her ledger book says, for instance, that she made $1,237.95 at Creighton in 2012 and $1,887.40 at UNMC.
“I’ve never earned that much before,” she said of the $20 an hour she gets for that work.
She never married. “I was brought up to believe marriage was forever. And I thought, ‘Forever?’ Now I could get married because forever is not so long.”
She worked as a picture framer in Omaha for about 25 years, acquiring during that time much of the art that adorns her home. She also has many cat etchings and other cat images on display.
At one point 25 years ago, she entered group therapy and realized how depressed she had been over never having a warm, intimate relationship with her parents. She dug out feelings that had been stored inside. She grieved.
She learned in 1992 that the Visiting Nurse Association needed volunteers for its hospice program. Finegan decided she could do that because she had learned how she might have behaved with her mother and father if she had been enlightened earlier.
Trainers emphasized that the hospice volunteer’s job was largely to listen. That was fine with Finegan, because she likes to hear other people’s stories. She has won three awards from the VNA for her work.
She has wept at times in the course of her volunteer duties.
“It’s OK to cry as long as you aren’t the person who has to be consoled,” she said.
She became friends with one man in hospice care who ended up giving her his two cats. That was 14 years ago and she still has one of those cats, named “Semi-Sweetness.”

Finegan rides her bicycle to her volunteer assignments, weather permitting. She gave up her yellow Volkswagen bug in 1985 and hasn’t had a car since. “That’s my car,” she said, pointing to her bike. MATT MILLER/THE WORLD-HERALD

Dr. Susanna Von Essen, whose mother died in 2007, recalled how important Finegan’s service to her mother had been. One night when Von Essen, a UNMC physician and professor, couldn’t be there, Finegan “sat with my mom the whole night,” Von Essen said. “It meant a lot to me that she was willing to do that.”
Sometimes Finegan reads the New Yorker magazine to her hospice patients. Sometimes she takes them to the enclosed pavilion outside the Douglas County Health Center on 42nd Street and sometimes she takes them in their wheelchairs through the garden. She provides a commentary on the flowers, plants, birds, weather and the season coming and the season going.
One recent, gray afternoon, Finegan visited one of her assigned hospice patients, an elderly woman dying of heart failure. Finegan had ridden her bicycle, carrying a backpack like a college kid, and wore a sweatshirt that read: Cat Lovers Against the Bomb.
The hospice patient, 83, appeared to be asleep. Finegan touched the woman on the right arm.
“I thought you might want to go outside,” Finegan said. There was an almost imperceptible affirmation. “You do?” Finegan said.
An attendant got the woman out of bed and placed her into her wheelchair. Finegan put a jacket over the woman, whose head tilted to the left. Her legs, in red polyester pants, were thin as tree branches.
“You doing OK?” Finegan asked.
She pushed the woman down a tan hospital hall called Wind Song Way. Finegan opened the door to the garden and cool air whooshed in.
“Feel that breeze?” Finegan asked.
A louder affirmation came from the woman this time: “Oh, yes!”
Contact the writer: 402-444-1123, rick.ruggles@owh.com, twitter.com/rickruggles

Share your thoughts