Even in the era of Kindles, iPads and countless other digital distractions, technology is no replacement for the simple joy of curling up with a book or thumbing through a magazine for some people. One person who is keenly aware of this is Brigham volunteer Suzanne Erwin, the shepherd of the hospital’s traveling book cart.
For more than 20 years, the Brigham’s book cart program has invited hospitalized patients to enjoy donated reading materials delivered by friendly volunteers, including Erwin. The cart, which visits most inpatient units once per week, is filled with books and magazines spanning a variety of genres — mystery novels, historical nonfiction, celebrity gossip magazines and crossword-puzzle books, just to name a few.
It would be inaccurate to call the program a lending library; it offers the books and magazines with no expectation of return. For that reason, the need for a steady donation of reading materials is ongoing.
“There’s just something special about reading an actual book that brings comfort to a lot of people,” said Kelsey Craig, volunteer program and training coordinator in the Office for Sponsored Staff and Volunteer Services, which oversees the program. “It’s not just about the books, either. It’s also the conversation and human connection. Some people don’t want to take anything but appreciate having someone to talk to.”
Erwin, who began volunteering at the Brigham last September, agreed that the books and magazines are only part of what the program contributes to the patient experience. Patients who have been in their hospital room for several days may want to chat about the weather. Others swap book recommendations with Erwin. On Mondays during football season, Erwin noticed that many patients were eager to chat about the previous night’s game, so she often brushes up on sports news before making her rounds.
Some simply thank her for coming in.
“Even if they don’t take a book or magazine, people are really happy to have that face-to-face interaction and have a conversation about something other than their illness,” Erwin added. “Some patients may not be up for a visit when I come by with the cart, and that’s OK, too. They’ve got a lot on their plate. But if they’re receptive to a visit, I’m delighted to help make their stay here a little more comfortable.”
The Write Stuff
To protect the health and safety of all patients and families, the book cart is unable to visit certain units — such as those caring for patients with a compromised immune system — or rooms where precautions for infection control are in effect.
For those patients who are able to participate, many will opt for a standard novel or nonfiction book. But most gravitate toward shorter paperbacks and, most popular of all, magazines. Perhaps unsurprisingly, thick tomes like War and Peace aren’t in high demand.
“Especially for someone who isn’t feeling well, or who may be in the hospital for only a day or two, flipping through something like People magazine or National Geographic can be a relaxing and welcome distraction from their illness,” Craig explained.
Erwin, who previously worked in health care, said it has been immensely gratifying to combine her love of reading with the opportunity to give back.
“At this moment in my life, I have time to give, and seeing the impact of that contribution is super rewarding,” she said.
If you would like to donate books or magazines to the book cart, contact Kelsey Craig at firstname.lastname@example.org or 617-732-6584. Materials should be new or gently used. For magazines, recent editions are preferred, but all donations are welcome.