Emma Kahn, a longtime volunteer at UCSF Medical Center, brightens the day of retired physician Robert Watson, MD.
The numbers are staggering, and even Emma Kahn is a bit incredulous: She has been volunteering at UCSF since 1965, just marked her 47th anniversary serving the UCSF Medical Center, has logged more than 7,600 hours and will turn 93 in July.
“I can’t believe I’m still walking,” said Kahn, who delivers mail to hospital patients every Wednesday morning.
She is part of a thriving and wide-ranging program that currently has 315 volunteers and averages about 800 a year. Eight have been there more than 20 years; the vast majority are in college, joined by high school students in the summer — all united around the cause of serving patients.
Victoria Kleemann, longtime director of Volunteer Services at UCSF Medical Center, presents Emma Kahn with a cake to celebrate her 47 years of service to patients.
The volunteers’ contributions touch the lives of patients and their families, directly or indirectly, in varied ways. For example, they circulate a book cart, work in the gift store, offer amenities to emergency room visitors and read to hospitalized children.
Kahn’s weekly duties begin at 9 a.m. and end at noon. She sorts through the mail, matches the names of patients with their location in the daily census, and then delivers cards, letters and emails. On average, she sees 20 to 25 patients each week. Working on the 11th floor, with its cancer patients, is the hardest.
“There are often many people coming into a patient’s room for tests and procedures,” said Victoria Kleemann, director of Volunteer Services at UCSF Medical Center. “It’s so fragmented. But you can almost bring the kaleidoscope into focus with a kind, caring person like Emma.”
Years ago, a patient sent a thank-you card that described Kahn as a “gentlewoman” who brought a soothing voice and calming presence to his room. And the fact she is robust and mobile is a morale booster for patients, especially the elderly ones.
On March 7, the day before her 47th anniversary at UCSF, she delivered an email to 78-year-old retired physician Robert Watson, MD, hospitalized on the eighth floor. It was from the prayer committee at his church. After learning Kahn’s age, family friend Mary Pickett said, “This is the sort of thing that gives him something to live for.”
An Icon with Purity of Spirit
Kleemann said, “Emma really is a touchstone. She’s an icon of sorts. There’s just a purity of spirit in why she’s here.”
Nearly 93, Emma Kahn has volunteered at UCSF Medical Center for 47 years.
Kahn, sitting in the hospital’s Volunteer Services Offices with Kleemann, quickly added, “Don’t forget, Vicki, it gives me a lift, too. I’ve lost most of my friends because I’m so old.”
However, she has made many new ones among the volunteers and staff at UCSF. Fellow volunteer Carlos Nails watched Kahn slice a surprise anniversary cake and said, “I was 1 when she started here. She’s like a walking history book -- and so modest.”
Born in San Francisco in 1919, Kahn has lived in her Outer Sunset home 63 years. She remembers going to Sutro Baths as a girl, dropping her purse on the Shoot the Chutes ride at Playland at Ocean Beach and discovering Charleston Chews, candy bars named for the dance craze of her youth.
She also recalls the day she showed up to offer her services to UCSF, where her two daughters had volunteered. After they left home, Kahn said, she had nothing to do.
“A woman took my name. And that was it,” said Kahn, who worked in patient admissions and pediatrics until 1999, when she started delivering mail to patients. Now volunteers need immunization records and go through rigorous screening and orientation.
Volunteers Emma Kahn and Al Zemsky
Kahn’s husband, a biomedical engineer who trained in pharmacy at UCSF, died 12 years ago. He and Kahn, born 10 days apart at Mount Zion, knew each other from birth. Until kindergarten, she spoke only Russian, the language of her immigrant parents, who named their child after anarchist Emma Goldman.
The volunteer’s older daughter lives in Boston, and the younger one is in San Luis Obispo. “The baby turned 62 the other day and the other one is 65 and on Medicare,” Kahn said. “Can you believe I have children that old?”
She loves fog, the ballet, newspaper puzzles, visiting museums, reading fiction, and watching “Jeopardy” and “Big Bang Theory” on television. “You can talk to her about anything,” Kleemann said. That’s an asset when patients want to chat. But the volunteer is careful not to force interactions.
Kahn reports for her shift even when she aches or her back hurts. She feels good most of the time, but is mystified by her longevity.
“I have no idea,” said Kahn, who has never smoked, still drives, and proudly notes that she has not napped a day in her life.
“The years at UCSF seem to have flown by,” she said. “And it gives me such a warm feeling knowing that I've been able to help the patients in some small way. I look forward to my Wednesdays.”
Photos by Susan Merrell