Published May 24. 2013 4:00AM Updated May 24. 2013 11:47PM
New London - Verna Swann, Lawrence + Memorial Hospital's veteran patient relations manager, just wanted a $50 dining room set.
This is the modest reason Swann gives now for joining the hospital staff as a floor secretary - the position now known as health unit coordinator - on Dec. 6, 1967. She was 18 years old, with two young children at home, and her machinist husband wasn't making enough to buy the coveted set at Wayside Furniture in Waterford. She decided she would work for one year to save up.
It was a time when African-Americans worked mostly in housekeeping and food service jobs, she says. But Swann, armed with the business classes she aced at New London High School, was determined to find secretarial work.
Inquiring at the hospital, she was told there were no openings. But a friend who worked as a floor secretary there told her she was alone on the understaffed 3 to 11 p.m. shift. She accompanied Swann the next time Swann went to check on openings.
Told once again they had no spot for Swann, her friend intervened: "Oh yes, you do!"
Forty-five years later, the "first lady" of L+M, as her co-workers fondly call her, will retire as patient relations manager, a position she debuted nearly 25 years ago.
Swann grew up the middle child of five, the daughter of sharecroppers in Cove City, N.C. Her family moved to New London after a visit with relatives turned into a permanent stay, and Swann's mother preceded her in an L+M career, working in housekeeping. After earning $1.25 an hour for two years as a floor secretary, Swann worked her way up the ranks as an emergency room interviewer - now known as a registrar - a billing clerk, an insurance counselor, and the front-desk receptionist.
For 18 years, Swann's was the first face you'd see when you walked through the hospital's main, and at that time only, entrance.
When William Christopher became president of the hospital in 1988 and began looking for ways to improve L+M, Swann, with two decades of workplace knowledge under her belt, stepped up.
"You know, I'm kind of embarrassed when they're walking out the door talking about how terrible we are, and we have families over here who are waiting to hear from the surgeons about their loved one in the operating room," she recalled telling him. "I was like, that's kind of scary, because they're probably thinking, 'What kind of hospital am I trusting with my loved one in surgery?'"
After visiting hospitals across the state to research similar departments, Swann went full-time in the hospital's brand-new patient relations department the following year.
Swann acted as go-between for hospital staff and disgruntled patients, straightening out miscommunication, coming up with improvement plans for the future and relaying survey feedback to the staff. If someone had a complaint, they lodged it with Swann.
Public relations director Mike O'Farrell called it "arguably the hardest job in the hospital." But Swann can't remember a day when, even with the 5 a.m. alarm, she woke up not wanting to go to work.
"Here's a woman who for the last, I don't even know how many years in this job … all she hears is patient complaints," said Nicole Porter, the nurse manager who oversees the hospital's emergency department and has worked with Swann for 18 years. "I've never seen anybody handle that type of stress and negativity on a daily basis with such grace and compassion. She never loses her cool, always is the epitome of the patient advocate.
"It's just a testament to her that she's been able to maintain the respect of both sides," Porter said. "I don't even know how she does it."
On her way in, Swann usually can't make it to her second-floor office without being stopped in the hallway for a conversation; a two-minute trip to the restroom usually turns into a half-hour affair, punctuated by conversations with patients, families and co-workers alike.
O'Farrell roughly calculated that Swann has averaged 125 calls a week for 24 years, and 250 faces a day in 18 years at the front desk over the course of her career.
And that's not to mention her celebrity outside the hospital walls. On trips to Stop & Shop in Waterford with her late husband, Swann would take a separate cart so her husband could buy groceries in peace.
But Swann never minded it.
"I'm delighted that people want to talk to me," she said.
At home, Swann acted as a caretaker for her husband during a 12-year illness, while also caring for her mother. Paul Swann died two years ago, and Ophelia White died two months later.
She recalls leaning on her co-workers then; others recall her resiliency, always showing up to work, never letting her grief affect her responsibilities.
After so many years as a caretaker both at home and at work, at 65, Swann says she's finally ready to leave. Her last day is today.
"I just kind of felt like I needed a change in my life," she said, "and I felt like I wanted to do it while I still felt young enough to do it."
Still, she speaks of her retirement plans in terms of gratitude and giving back. She plans on volunteering at the hospital's new cancer center when it opens as well as continuing her husband's work with Meals on Wheels.
Though her colleagues - the ones who say she was the backbone of L+M - would vehemently disagree, Swann insists her career was not one worthy of accolades.
"I just did what is natural to do, and that is to respect people, help them, care for them," she said. "Same as they did for me."