A Hagerstown woman's MS diagnosis hasn't stopped her volunteer spirit

February 25, 2012|By CHRIS COPLEY |
  • Debbie Godlove of Hagerstown was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2000 but has not let her diagnosis slow down her volunteerism.
By Chris Copley/Herald-Mail

Debbie Godlove's life took a turn when her husband Jim's parents moved into a series of local nursing homes.

"For years, we visited every day or every other day," Godlove said. "That is where I decided I was going to become a volunteer. People in nursing homes need people to visit with them."

Godlove, of Hagerstown, bumped into a former co-worker who volunteered with the Nursing Home Visitation Program organized by a coalition of police and seniors. Godlove wanted to know more. She got involved, and now, five years later, she heads up the program herself.

"This program is a win-win situation," she said. "The residents in the nursing home win because they have correspondence with us. And we win, because it's a good feeling to help people."

Godlove got her start helping people when she earned an associate degree in mental health technology from Allegany Community College in 1976. A few years later, she moved to Hagerstown and took a job at Potomac Center, a facility for people with developmental disabilities.

For 23 years, Godlove worked at Potomac Center in a variety of capacities. Her final position was organizing recreational activities. It was physically demanding work, she said. And it wore on her. Her legs began to hurt.

"I thought it was just my 20 years of hard work," she said. "It was a physical job. A lot of lifting. I had to change the patients. I was doing a lot of walking, and I was driving the bus.

"But my legs were hurting so bad. I just couldn't do it any more."

Godlove's doctor X-rayed her legs, and conducted an MRI on her hips. But he found nothing wrong.

"And then he wanted to do an MRI on my brain. And I was like, ‘Why? My brain don't hurt,'" Godlove joked. "But he knew what he was looking for."

And what he found in 2000 was multiple sclerosis.

Godlove described MS as an attack on the sheath surrounding the nerve endings in the brain. The sheath serves as an electrical insulator for the brain's electrical activity. So when the sheath is degraded, Godlove said, the brain suffers short circuits.

MS affects different people differently, she added.

"In my case, my short circuit is basically my right leg. I've had some pretty bad falls," she said. "My girlfriend, Carol, she has difficulty holding onto something. She'll hold something, then suddenly drop it."

Godlove retired from Potomac Center in 2002. At that point, she had been married to her husband, Jim Godlove, for seven years. She had no children of her own but had one grandson, Chance, through Jim's son, Guy and his wife, Julie.

But Debbie Godlove likes to be active and stay connected to the community. So when she learned of the Nursing Home Visitation Program, she got involved.

The program is managed in Washington County by the SALT Council. SALT is Seniors And Law enforcement Together, a coalition of Maryland State Police and Washington County seniors collaborating to help reduce crime against seniors and promote their well-being. Volunteers with the visitation program go in pairs once a month to Washington County nursing homes and spend two hours chatting with residents.

Volunteers are assigned to a specific nursing home. Godlove and Bill Donaldson visit NMS Healthcare, north of Hagerstown.

The visitations serve two purposes. First, Godlove says, it's good to be a friendly face to residents, some of whom have no one else visiting them. Second, volunteers try to help residents improve their situation.

"If they would have some complaints," Godlove said, "we see if we can solve that by talking to their social worker or a maintenance person, a nurse, or a family member."

Some nursing home residents ask volunteers to sneak down to a vending machine and bring back snacks, but Godlove says volunteers are trained to check with nurses about foods and beverages. Some residents have diabetes or other health conditions that limit their diet. Other residents have trouble drinking, and can only drink fluids that have thickeners in them.

All nursing home visitation volunteers are trained before their first visit. They learn about state laws concerning nursing homes. They learn how to deal with patients. They learn how to coordinate with administrators and staff of nursing homes.

"One quality that makes a good volunteer is compassion," she said. "They need empathy. Not sympathy. Residents don't want you to feel sorry for them. They want you to talk with them and spend time with them."

Godlove says the visitation program visits 10 nursing homes in Washington County, but she's short-handed. She needs a few more volunteers to visit nursing homes.

In the meantime, Godlove keeps busy. She leads a support group for people with MS. She spends time with her grandsons — there are two now, Chance, 16, and Blaze, 9 — and with her family and friends.

And she keeps visiting residents at NMS.

"It's just really nice to help people, to know you're making a difference in somebody's life," she said.

To volunteer    

The SALT council (Seniors And Law enforcement Together) oversees the Nursing Home Visitation Program. The program sends pairs of volunteers to each of Washington County's 10 nursing homes. The program needs volunteers.

 For more information about the program, call Debbie Godlove at 301-797-3793.

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