CARIBOU, Maine – Laugh, and the world laughs with you. Share that laughter and the world honors you.
That’s exactly what happened to Betty Walker, Cary Medical Center’s director of volunteer services, when the Maine Hospital Association last week named her the 2011 Caregiver of the Year.
Known throughout the hospital as Cary’s “chief entertainment officer,” Walker is an advocate of using humor to improve the lives and moral of patients at the facility.
“Betty’s selection as 2011 Caregiver of the Year is an example of how hospital care is more than just making sure patients get the right treatments,” Steven Michaud, MHA president, said. “It’s also about ministering to their emotional needs.”
Walker has worked at Cary for 25 years, ever since joining the staff as a receptionist in the rehabilitation services department.
“I was shocked and never dreamed I’d be nominated for a statewide award,” Walker said Friday afternoon while taking a break from tending to her granddaughter. “I just do what I do and I love what I do.”
What Walker loves — and has loved for as long as she can remember — is acting and making people laugh.
Early on in her career at Cary, Walker founded an all-girls hillbilly band that called themselves The Hooters.
“At the time I did no know about those ‘Hooter’ restaurants,” Walker said. “I don’t get around much.”
The band entertained with musical numbers featuring members jamming on spoons and washboards. They also performed skits and told jokes.
“We entertained the patients and sometimes performed outside the hospital,” Walker said.
When The Hooters took their show on the road they never charged for the performance, but readily accepted donations for the local cancer clinic, something that became personal for Walker.
On March 29, 2010, the now 63-year-old Walker was diagnosed with endometrial-uterine cancer.
“That same week I learned I was going to have a grandchild,” Walker said. “So I just knew the Lord was going to let me see her.”
Three rounds of chemotherapy and 25 radiation treatments later, Walker is now in remission and itching to get back to entertaining.
“For awhile another guy from the hospital and I were dressing up as clowns and called ourselves ‘Suture and Stitches,’ and we’d go around visiting the patients,” Walker said. “Of course, the employees liked it too [but] I could not do it this year and I’m going to get back into it.”
Walker also organizes the hospital annual talent show, which raises thousands of dollars.
In her current position she has developed one of the strongest hospital volunteer programs in Maine, with nearly 100 volunteers logging more than 10,000 hours annually. Her blood drives have provided nearly 10,000 units of blood, earning recognition from the American Red Cross.
In the midst of all this, Walker successfully raised her family, ensuring that her special needs daughter had the opportunity to excel in her creativity and talent. And she earned a degree from Northern Maine Community College, graduating at the top of her class, and later becoming a mentor for students there. She also was recently named one of 50 shining star graduates of NMCC in recognition of the college’s 50th anniversary.
Walker admits to being no stranger to adversity.
“Years ago I ended up divorced, on welfare and raising a daughter with Down syndrome,” she said. “She’s now 38 and doing great, my oldest daughter is an occupational therapist with her own business and my youngest is a cosmetologist and has her own business, so they all turned out pretty good.”
Along the way she met and married Rey Walker in 1990 who was a special part of her family until his passing in 1999.
Walker credits her attitude in getting her through tough times.
“The big key to success is your attitude,” she said. “It affects all parts of your life.”
Nancy Bergin works closely with Walker in Cary’s human resources department.
“I am truly blessed to have Betty as a co-worker and friend,” Bergin said. “She exemplifies faith, integrity, commitment and courage and I would be remiss not to mention the daily dose of humor she shares with all of us.”
Her experiences as a patient have taught Walker a thing or two, she said.
“Life is a journey and you have mountain tops and valley experiences and we look to always be on the mountain,” she said. “But in the valleys you have the beautiful brooks and flowers.”
Surviving cancer and witnessing firsthand the support of friends, family and co-workers has made Walker see and appreciate those valleys.
Walker is already looking forward to planning the coming Cary Talent Show and promises to appear “in some kind of get up.”
And, don’t discount a possible cameo by The Hooters.
“When you take a moment to laugh, no matter what you are going through, it helps release your burden for those few moments,” Walker said. “I love to make people laugh and to hear them laugh.”