SPOKANE, Wash. — Lee Hutchison remembers the son she outlived as she makes her early morning commute from Newman Lake to her volunteer job at the Spokane Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
The 89-year-old takes the bus four times a week to make up for her loss, doing it for herself, she says. The employees don’t know what they would do without her.
“The vets always look forward to seeing her and having her around,” said Cindy Shepard, health unit coordinator. “She could probably do my job when I leave.”
Hutchison, a retired teacher, didn’t know what else to do except help other veterans after the loss of her husband and son.
She’s active, witty and she runs circles around the nurses, administrative staff and the veterans young enough to be her own children.
On a recent Wednesday, during weekly rounds to visit veterans, the specialists all stopped to say hello to Hutchison as she quietly put away clean clothes, towels and quilts for the veterans staying in the center’s nursing home and hospice.
The community home connected to the medical center holds 28 beds for veterans who are facing illness and injury. Some are there for only a few months; others have been there for years because they have nowhere else to go and no one to take care of them.
Those who die are escorted out of the home in a procession of staff and family. A lighted candle marks their departure and a quilted flag blankets their gurney, said nurse manager Sonya Marleton.
Hutchison’s son, Darryl, died in 2008 at 62 from brain tumor complications that left him bedridden at the medical center. He was a retired Navy patrol boat operator during the Vietnam War, Hutchison said. She would visit him six days a week when he was hospitalized. When he died, she couldn’t stay and watch him go, she said.
“I was too broken, though I was prepared for it. You’re never as prepared as you think you are,” Hutchison said. “I had to make the decision to let him go.”
She had made the same decision for her husband a year earlier, but his death was easier because of his older age. Hutchison didn’t know what to do following their deaths, but she found herself returning to the VA to show the same empathy for other veterans.
“I think Lee, who has gone through it, understands it,” Marleton said.
Hutchison’s work has not gone unnoticed. She was named employee of the month for January, although she’s only a volunteer and the first volunteer to be given the award, Marleton added.
Her family doesn’t have strong ties to military tradition, Hutchison said, but her husband joined the Marine Corps during World War II and toured the South Pacific.
“They were doing their duty as citizens,” Hutchison said. “There was a war going on and they joined.”
Her dedication to their memory puts her in a place to help a retired paratrooper, aviation radar tech, tank turret mechanic, an infantryman and more.
Hutchison expects to volunteer many more years. After all, she’s survived cancer, the removal of her gall bladder, appendix, tonsils and a hernia. Her job keeps her on her feet all day and she says she can do it.
“I just thank the Lord – it’s all I can do,” Hutchison said.