'Bunny' Mishkin's recovery-room mission: 'Keep on living'
New London — Bernice "Bunny" Mishkin neither looks nor acts her age.
People tell her it’s because she’s got good genes.
“Yes, I bought them at Nordstrom,” the ever-chic Mishkin is apt to say.
Just how old is she?
In the Post Anesthesia Care Unit at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital, where Mishkin started volunteering six years ago, the nurses ask the patients to guess. Responses have ranged from 42 to 83, which is to say no one’s comes close.
Now 96, Mishkin’s put the hospital on notice. She’ll keep up her three-days-a-week, five-hours-a-day schedule until she’s 100. Then, she’ll take it a year at a time.
“She’s such a positive presence in here,” said Vicky Longo, a PACU nurse. “Patients like that she’s a volunteer and never looks her age. She answers the phone, talks to the patients. ... We really support what she does.”
“We love you, Bunny,” nurses and patients alike called out as Mishkin was leaving the unit one day last week. In the hospital’s corridors, seemingly everyone she passed greeted her by name.
When she introduces herself to the families who wait out their loved ones' surgeries in a lounge near the PACU, she says she’s Bunny — “that’s either Easter or Playboy.” Then she shows them a well-preserved, 16-year-old invitation to her 80th birthday party, which features her grandson Moze’s handiwork: Mishkin’s smiling face attached to a Playboy Bunny's body.
“That’s my head,” Mishkin said, displaying the invitation.
She recalled her nicknaming goes back 90 years to when she was 6 years old and relatives kept mispronouncing Bernice as “Bunnice” or "Bunnies" or something. Finally, her older sister Rita declared she was “Bunny.”
People marvel at the diminutive Mishkin’s energy. Her ability to commute between New London and Groton, where she’s lived alone at Solstice Senior Living since her beloved husband, Herbert, died eight years ago, also tends to pique interest.
“‘You drive across the (Gold Star Memorial) bridge?’ people ask me,” she said. “I tell them I learned to drive in New York City. They don’t say anything after that.”
Mishkin’s 65-year-old son Mitchell, who lives in Hampton with his wife, Lauren, regularly checks on his mother. His three sons, Sam, Max and Moze, are Mishkin’s only grandchildren. Her daughters Bonnie and Gail, both in their 70s, live on Long Island and in California, respectively.
“I tell him, ‘If I need you, I know how to get you,’” Mishkin said, referring to her son.
In April, she flew alone to the West Coast to visit her daughter. She was sitting in a wheelchair waiting at the gate for her flight to depart when an airline representative, impressed by her stylishness, invited her to wait in the lounge reserved for first-class passengers.
“You’re dressed like people used to dress to get on an airplane,” the representative told Mishkin, who has taken to reminding people to “dress nice when you fly, you’ll get some attention.”
Mishkin began working when she was 17 years old, pitching in to help the World War II effort as a draftsman. After the war, she said, a woman couldn’t get a job like that. She became a bookkeeper in her husband’s business, then credit manager and then an interior decorator. She drew her last paycheck while working in a Hallmark store.
When did she retire?
“Who’s retired?” Mishkin said, estimating she was about 79 when she left the store.
Loath to sit still and living in Hackensack, N.J., she started volunteering at Hackensack Hospital, first in the gift shop, which she didn’t much like.
“I wanted to talk to people,” she said. “So, someone said why not try the recovery room? You can talk to people, families of patients waiting for their loved ones. I loved it, making them laugh, relaxing them.”
At L+M, Mishkin serves as a liaison between the PACU and the lounge where families wait. After a doctor meets with a family, Mishkin helps keep them informed of their loved one’s status and tries to put them at ease. In the PACU, she logs patients in and out, records their doctors and the procedures they’ve undergone, relieving the nurses of such burdens.
Humor’s a big part of it, she said, recounting a tale of how she was recognized long ago for her ability to make people laugh. In high school, she and an equally funny classmate shared an honor. Each was named the “half-wittiest” member of the class.
First the set-up, then the punch line.
“She is an asset to this organization,” Shelly Warrender, manager of volunteer services for L+M and Westerly hospitals, said of Mishkin. “She comes in more than we ever expected her to. She says it’s her purpose, her reason to get out of bed in the morning.”
For a year during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Yale New Haven Health system prohibited volunteers from entering hospitals, which proved a hardship for Mishkin.
“She was calling me all the time, saying, ‘Please let me come back,’” Warrender said.
Mishkin confirmed she was “a pest,” the reason, she believes, she was the first volunteer to be called back.
“Shelly told me she wasn’t calling a lot of the 90-year-olds back,” Mishkin said. “‘By the way, how old are you?’ she asked me. I told her 95. She said, ‘Forget I said anything.’”
Asked about secrets to her longevity, Mishkin starts with the genes.
“My father lived to be 100,” she said. “He worked till he was 75, then started playing golf. He could hit it absolutely straight ... for 20 yards. He had to keep hitting it and hitting it.”
Mishkin’s mother died at age 36 of complications from hepatitis treatments that damaged her liver. Her sister died at 91. The cousin she was raised with by an aunt died about 20 years ago.
“I’m the only one left” of those she grew up with, she said.
She’s undoubtedly benefitted from not being a worrier or a complainer, Mishkin said, and she’s never been a smoker or a drinker of alcohol. She recalled her first date with her husband, when she went to the beach during the day to get some color, then faced a Southern Comfort and Coke on the date that evening. She passed out — from the sun, not the drink, she said.
“He took me out again, and we were married for nearly 69 years,” she said. “It was a really good marriage.”
Mishkin said she might volunteer more if her children would let her. Fridays are out, though — that’s beauty parlor day.
“You’ve got to keep going, you’ve got to live,” she said. “Life is meant to be lived.”