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Pierce’s presence brightens days in Trauma ICU

Jan. 24, 2019, 9:45 AM

Guest Services volunteer Don Pierce helps family and friends of patients in the Trauma Intensive Care Unit.
Guest Services volunteer Don Pierce helps family and friends of patients in the Trauma Intensive Care Unit. (photo by Susan Urmy)

by Tavia D. Smith

As he walks the hallways of the Trauma Intensive Care Unit at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Don Pierce’s gold Guest Services blazer is an outward symbol of the heart of gold you’ll find underneath.

Pierce, 80, helps family and friends of trauma patients both physically and emotionally navigate the often frightening and overwhelming hours they spend waiting for news and recovery of their loved ones.

For 10 years — two years as a volunteer stocking supplies and eight years as a Guest Services representative — Pierce has focused on taking care of VUMC visitors.

His positive energy and warm greetings comfort those who return to the trauma unit for days, weeks and sometimes months, patiently waiting for healing.

“These families come from all over the region,” Pierce said. “Sometimes they don’t even have their belongings because they rushed here because of an emergency. When they get off that elevator, you catch them at their most vulnerable, and they are panic stricken. I try to help them through that difficult time.”

Pierce carries notes tucked in his pocket to help him greet patients and family members by name. He quickly becomes a familiar presence amidst a whirlwind of nurses, doctors, surgeries and treatments, and relationships form that are like the bonds of family.

“Some guests have sent me cards after they are gone, and some I call and check on after they are gone,” Pierce said. “It is such a special job.”

VUMC Guest Services Supervisor Kimberly Dunham said Pierce, who won a Credo Award in 2014, has “only improved” as a dedicated worker over time, “if that’s possible.”

“He is loved by not only our families and visitors, but also by the Trauma 10N patient care team,” she said. “He goes above and beyond for each person he encounters and is a tremendous support for his team. He always puts himself in the families’ shoes and treats them the way he would want to be treated.”

Before working in health care, Pierce grew up with dreams of flying airplanes. A carnival-ride accident as a child almost destroyed his aspirations, but with perseverance and hard work, he attended Auburn University and served as a U.S. Navy pilot for five years.

He then worked as an American Airlines co-pilot and captain for 32 years, with perfect attendance, before retiring at age 60.

Working for the airline landed the Birmingham, Alabama, native in Nashville, and after retiring he began volunteering at VUMC. Learning more about the medical field and directly assisting visitors makes his service enjoyable, he said.

“I try to be sensitive and read people,” Pierce said. “I’ve learned when to joke and cheer people up and when to just sit, listen and help. I truly look forward to coming to work.”

He often stays after his shift to help a guest in need, and that work ethic is part of what makes Pierce an invaluable member of the trauma unit and VUMC, Dunham said.

“I wish I had 10 more Dons,” she added. “He has so much life experience and entertaining stories, and he has a gift for adding positivity to very difficult situations. Don is the brightest spot in one of VUMC’s most difficult areas.”

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