Written by Jim Gallagher
A tornado tore through mid-Missouri, leaving shocked survivors standing wet and cold in the dark, wondering where they would spend the night. Slowly, they began finding their way to a Red Cross emergency shelter seeking a place to sleep, a meal, and some comfort. One woman arrived with two children in tow—and a problem.
“I have head lice,” she said, “and I can’t afford treatment.”
Kathie Hoette, Red Cross volunteer nurse, took her to a pharmacy where the Red Cross paid for the proper medicine—and then she gave her a great big hug.
“The woman backed off, and then started crying,” Kathie recalls.
Through her tears the woman said, “I have head lice and you hugged me.”
Of course, Kathie hugged her. That’s what Red Cross nurses do. That great big hug told the woman that, despite all her troubles, she was valued.
“That’s why I do what I do” said Kathie. “If you can help one person deal with the shock a little better, just treat them a little more kindly, then you’ve done your job.”
Volunteer nurses are vital to the Red Cross mission. They provide aid in shelters, and medical guidance to the volunteer staff. “They are the healing faces of what we do,” says John Mathews, who works with Kathie as Red Cross disability integration lead in mid-Missouri.
The typical evacuation shelter has large numbers of people sleeping a few feet from each other in open spaces like church basements and gym floors. On another occasion, Kathie was staffing a shelter after a Florida hurricane when a man had a panic attack late at night. She learned the man was missing his “CPAP,” a breathing device for people with sleep apnea. “It may have been a lack of oxygen, and maybe everything else that was going on,” she said. The staff found him a CPAP, and he was fine.
Nurses also help in calmer times, aiding people after home fires—the day-to-day clients of Red Cross disaster services. Families often escape fires with just the clothes on their backs, and Kathie and her fellow nurses step in to replace prescription medicines, eye glasses and medical devices lost to the flames.
Kathie also takes on a more sorrowful role as a member of the Red Cross condolence team. Working with medical providers and public officials, she identifies the families of people who die in disasters, then reaches out to provide comfort and offer financial assistance.
The Red Cross needs more nurses like Kathie. She is the only Red Cross nurse serving a 30-county, largely rural swath of central Missouri. She spent 36 years as a public health nurse in Montgomery County, population 11,400, where public health nurses do a little bit of everything from immunization, disease control, contact tracing, and working with women and children’s programs. They become widely known by local officials, by the people they help, and by all their patients’ relatives and neighbors.
After retiring six years ago, she was looking for a way to continue to serve. A friend who was a Red Cross volunteer guided her aboard.
Since then, she’s helped clients after home fires and installed smoke alarms. She responded after Hurricane Harvey in Texas in 2017, Hurricane Michael in Florida in 2018, and the 2019 tornado in Jefferson City, Missouri. Along the way she’s found many friends.
“It’s a wonderful family. They are the most giving, lovely people,” she says.
Those friends appreciate Kathie and her caring service. “She always has a cheerful, accepting demeanor and wants to be part of the helping group,” says Mathews.
Red Cross volunteers are paid in hugs and thank-you’s. Sometimes a person will thank Kathie over and over again. When that happens, she tells them to be grateful to Red Cross donors.
“It’s the average person like you and me who hears of a disaster and donates—it’s just normal citizens concerned about human beings.”
Her favorite thank-you came from Katie Jo, one of her nine grandchildren, when Katie Jo’s teacher assigned her to write an essay about her hero.
“My hero is my grandma,” Katie Jo wrote. “I call her Mamaw. Her name is Kathie. She volunteers at the Red Cross, and volunteers for emergency fire calls. She puts fire alarms in the homes of Amish people. When there is a hurricane, she helps people get their medicine. Mamaw is my hero because she helps people and she doesn’t get paid for it.”
Would you like to be someone’s hero? The Red Cross needs more volunteers. Go to https://www.redcross.org/volunteer/become-a-volunteer.html to find out more.