Her Barnes-Jewish Hospital volunteer badge reads, “Ernesta,” but anyone who talks to her for more than five minutes, knows to call her Ernie. And eight years ago, Ernie foresaw an entirely different retirement.
The year 2000 meant a lot of things to many people: it was a new year and the turn of a new millennium. For Ernesta Engel it meant that after 39 years of hard work, she and her husband Leon could retire and spend the rest of their days traveling and enjoying their grandchildren.
“They were supposed to be our golden years,” Ernie says. But instead, unexpected events changed Ernie’s life forever.
The couple was just settling into their new life when Leon died suddenly of a heart attack. Then, soon after burying her husband, breast cancer became Ernie’s next battle. A tragic, unexpected heart attack may have taken her husband, but Ernie wasn’t going to let tragedy strike again. She fought and ultimately beat the cancer, and soon after, realized she had a purpose for living.
“I’ve always had a positive attitude, but the doctors gave me a positive direction,” Ernie says of her physicians at Barnes-Jewish. “Barnes-Jewish took extra care,” she says. “I have found they were always there for me … trying to do the best they could.”
And these days, cancer isn’t what brings Ernie to Barnes-Jewish. Her strength and will to help others endure tough times is the driving force behind her volunteer work.
“I had a choice to try and make something of my life, or be depressed,” she says of her loss and cancer diagnosis. “Barnes-Jewish was so good to me and my husband. … I wanted to give back.” So Ernie began volunteering for the hospital in 2002.
Every Monday and Wednesday she walks the halls of Barnes-Jewish, clipboard in hand, welcoming new patients. She works under the Guest/Patient Relations Department, and she spends most of her time lending a hand to newly admitted patients and their families and friends, with one goal in mind: to see how many smiles she can put on peoples’ faces.
For Ernie, her purpose in life wasn’t revealed until she lost a big part of it. Now, the once fragile, devastated widow has welcomed the role of caregiver, and is seen as a pillar of warmth and strength for those who need it most. Ernie maintains she has gained more.
“Volunteering has saved my life,” Ernie says. “I come home feeling like I’ve accomplished something. I have a purpose now.”
Although Ernie isn’t traveling the world, she is exploring life anew. And although she still comes home to an empty house, she knows she’s not alone.
“I feel like my husband is my guardian angel, and he would be very proud of me today,” she says.
From the Barnes-Jewish Hospital Foundation's Giving Magazine, Fall 2008