From Tiny Patient to Volunteer: J.D.’s Story

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From Tiny Patient to Volunteer: J.D.’s Story

Two days a week, James D. Crook arrives at Oklahoma Children’s Hospital OU Health at 3 a.m. to start his three-hour shift as a volunteer. It’s an early start, but for the retired corrections officer turned attorney, it’s the highlight of his day. But J.D.’s relationship with Oklahoma Children’s Hospital started many years earlier.

Like his mother before him, J.D. was born with an atrial septal defect, a congenital disease of the heart where a hole in the septum divides the atria of the heart. While a fetus is developing, there are several openings in the septum, but they will usually close during the pregnancy or not long after birth. J.D.’s atrial septal defect needed to be closed surgically when he was 5 years old, so in 1969 he was admitted to Oklahoma Children’s Hospital – then known as Oklahoma Hospital for Crippled Children.

The Oklahoma Hospital for Crippled Children opened in 1928 as part of the early University of Oklahoma College of Medicine’s University Hospital in Oklahoma City. It was established to serve the growing population of children who had special orthopedic needs, but after World War II, and the polio epidemic of the late 1940s and early 1950s, it was designated as a general children’s hospital. Today, after several name changes and phenomenal growth, the Oklahoma Hospital for Crippled Children proudly bears the name Oklahoma Children’s Hospital OU Health.

J.D. was admitted to the hospital for open-heart surgery, but before the surgeon could operate, J.D. had dental cavities that needed to be taken care of. The hospital first fixed his teeth so they wouldn’t be an infection risk, and then performed the open-heart surgery. J.D. recalls a few things about his stay 54 years ago.

The hospital provided toys for the kids to play with, which were placed in large toy boxes around the unit. They could take a toy to play with and when finished with it, would put it back in the box and take another. To pass the time, children would race each other up and down the hallways in wheelchairs and on crutches, until either their parents or the nurses would put the shenanigans to an end. But by far, J.D.’s favorite memory of that time is when his heart surgeon visited him on the ward with a surprise.

“He pulled out a box from behind his back and it was caramel corn. Not Cracker Jack – I think it was called Fiddle Faddle – and he told me not to tell anybody. I thought that was the greatest thing ever.”

J.D. was back in the Crippled Children’s Hospital in 1970 for club foot surgery. The surgery would make him flat-footed. Both of J.D.’s surgeries were successful and as an adult, he went on to a career in law enforcement.

J.D.’s first job was with the Department of Justice Bureau of Prisons as a correctional officer, and after a couple of years, he sat the LSAT and was accepted into the Oklahoma City University Law School night program. He was still working the morning watch shift at the prison and studied at night for 3-and-a-half years. When he started law school, J.D. and his wife had one child, and they went on to have another three. Once he graduated from OCU, J.D. continued to work with the Department of Justice, first as a paralegal, then as an attorney.

In 2019, J.D.’s daughter told him that Oklahoma Children’s Hospital was looking for volunteer “cuddlers” for the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). A volunteer cuddler is trained to cuddle, hold, swaddle, comfort and read to babies in the NICU. J.D. really liked the idea but after he’d been through the interview process and training, COVID-19 put the volunteer cuddler program on hold.

During the pandemic, The Zone at Oklahoma Children’s Hospital was also shut down for use by patients, so staff were able to use it as an area to sit and take a break and grab a snack. J.D. worked as an attorney during the day but still wanted to volunteer in some capacity. On Tuesday afternoons after work, he’d stop in at The Zone and clean and disinfect the area so that the staff could continue using it. In 2020, he was asked if he would be interested in working with the Toy Cart, handing out toys to the young patients, and he jumped at the opportunity.

“Who doesn’t want to be Santa Claus every day?” J.D. laughed.

During the pandemic, the toys were hung on the doorknobs as the volunteers couldn’t enter the rooms.

J.D. retired from the Department of Justice in September 2021 after 32 years of service, and finally, in March 2022, the cuddlers volunteer program started up again. J.D. started cuddling babies two days per week and handing out toys from the Toy Cart an additional day.

“I get to cuddle babies at 3 o’clock in the morning —where’s the downside there?” J.D. said. “I would argue that really nothing bad can happen to you for the rest of the day when you start out holding a baby.”

Working as a volunteer at Oklahoma Children’s Hospital is a true joy to J.D., and one which he never plans to retire from. On the odd occasion a little girl who has just received a new toy will hug J.D.’s legs, or a sick little boy will follow him down the hallway to say thank you. He is emotional even thinking about what it means to the children.

“I want this to be the thing that everyone who donates the toys to understand —it makes a kid’s day,” J.D. explained. “When they’re in the hospital and they get handed a new toy, it’s a no-lose situation. If you donate two toys to the Toy Cart, I can guarantee you that there’s going to be two kids who are really happy.”

From a little boy who spent time as a patient in the early days of Oklahoma Children’s Hospital, to a much-loved volunteer, J.D. has come full circle.

Learn more about volunteering opportunities and how you can donate to Oklahoma Children’s Hospital.