Less than a decade shy of her 100th birthday, Hildegard Krusch picks up a United States Postal Service container full of cards and letters and heads out the door of the Spectrum Health volunteer office at Butterworth Hospital.
Krusch, 90, is delivering more than mail to patients on this chilly Monday. Having survived World War II in her native Germany, she brings wisdom, a sense of history and gratitude.
Krusch’s steps echo determination and perseverance, just as her life has.
“I’m a fast walker,” the 90-year-old said, reaching up with her 4-foot-8-inch frame to select “7” on the elevator control panel. “I like to walk. It’s good exercise. People don’t have to do all these gymnastics and everything. They just need to walk at a brisk pace.”
I think the most important thing for them to see on anybody and everybody that enters the room is a smiling face. I have been there. It makes a difference.
Krusch reached the 7 north floor, placed the mail tray on the nurse station’s counter, grabbed a handful of the envelopes and headed for patient rooms.
She reached up for a squirt of hand sanitizer before entering the room of a patient.
“Good morning … I have a letter for you,” Krusch said. “You have a good day.”
Next, she gave an addressed envelope to Valerie Mead, another seventh floor patient.
“Thank you, Hildegard,” Mead told her. “You’re like a flower delivery person. Everyone smiles when they see you.”
That’s Krusch’s mission in this role. To bring smiles to everyone she meets, even though she didn’t have many smiles herself growing up.
Traversing these hospital floors with good cheer, she is an ocean and a lifetime away from her younger years in war-ravaged Germany.
Running from war
As a teenager, Krusch left her family, left her home, left the only life she had ever known to escape the dangers of World War II.
“I left my mama and papa and brother,” Krusch said. “I walked out of my house, my home where I was born, where I lived for 19 years, with a little suitcase and said goodbye to my mama and my papa, not knowing where I was going. The government wanted to have all young girls leave because of the Russians.”
Four days after Krusch fled, Russians marched into her hometown.
In September of 1945, she resurfaced at her aunt’s house in northwest Germany.
“The first question I asked was were my mama and papa there,” Krusch recalled. “I found out they were still alive so I applied for them to come.”
In November of 1950, after her parents served time in a refugee camp, the family reunited.
But war took its toll on the country, and on opportunities.
“The war years destroyed a lot,” she said. “In my hometown, a lot of my girlfriends didn’t leave when I did. Many of them, the Russians killed them or they died of illnesses.”
Coming to America
In 1957, at the encouragement of a friend, Krusch left her beloved homeland to meet a man in Grand Rapids, Michigan, whom she expected would become her husband.
It didn’t work out.
Alone in a foreign land, with limited English-speaking skills, she took a job at the Schnitzelbank German restaurant in downtown Grand Rapids.
Shortly thereafter, she applied at Butterworth Hospital and got a job as a nurse aid, and 14 years later, as a respiratory therapist.
The hospital became like home; her co-workers, like family.
“The people I worked with were just amazing,” she said. “I never dreamed in my whole life I would do anything like that.”
She enjoyed the atmosphere so much that when she retired in 1988 after 30 years on the job, she volunteered to deliver mail to patients.
She’s like a postmark that never fades.
“Having worked here for so many years, it’s been my whole life,” Krusch said, sitting in the volunteer office on a recent Monday morning. “I’m alone. I don’t have any family. I enjoy coming to work here.”
Hildegard, who lives in an independent living senior facility, doesn’t cut her exercise short during her 90- to 120-minute mail delivery sessions.
After completing seventh floor delivery rounds, Krusch headed for the stairway.
“We’ll take the steps down to six,” she said.
Holding the hand rail and heading down at a brisk clip, Krusch said she used to be even faster.
“It’s amazing what happens when you get older,” she said. “I used to take the steps two at a time.”
These days, she takes life one day at a time, and appreciates every moment.
A legacy of letters
“When I first got here (to America), I cried every day,” Krusch said. “I wanted to die, actually. Little by little I got friends.”
Perhaps more than most, Krusch can relate to how lonely some patients must feel.
“I think the most important thing for them to see on anybody and everybody that enters the room is a smiling face,” she said. “I have been there. It makes a difference. I think it’s very important to be kind and friendly. Even if they don’t feel good, they can always smile back.”
As she hands out cards and letters, many do smile. Both inside and out.
Cards and letters also hold a special place in Krusch’s heart.
They were her only form of communication with her family when she moved to America. Her parents have since died, but the letters remain.
“I still have all the letters that I ever got from my mama and my papa,” she said, her eyes growing misty. “I have them in a box. There was a time when I would get them out and I would cry. I don’t do that anymore. I put them in a box and put a yellow beautiful bow around the box.”
The letters from her mama stopped coming in 1962. She died of a heart attack.
“It just broke my heart,” Krusch said.
As she hands out letters these days, she said she thinks fondly of the times she was the recipient.
“I see myself receiving a letter from my dad and my mama and how happy it made me,” Krusch said. “It brings back memories of them. They loved me. It was hard for them to let me go.”
She loved being remembered, and feeling closer to her family oceans away, through the written word.
Krusch still relies on letters to communicate. She has no email address, and doesn’t use computers.
“People in the hospital, I think, feel a little forgotten when no one writes to them,” she said. “I think it’s important for us to remember those who are ill. They need some joy and hope. Delivering mail in the hospital means a lot to people and it makes me happy.”
Kim Francis, Spectrum Health manager of volunteer services, said Krusch’s dedication is an inspiration.
“She rarely misses a day,” Francis said. “We welcome her spunk and vibrancy every Monday and know that she shares this with our patients when she delivers their personal mail. She tells us how this place is her home and we are her family and that makes us love her and our jobs that much more.”
Francis said she wants to age like Krusch has.
“We love her giggly laugh,” Francis said. “She brightens a room. She has taught me who I want to be as I mature—active, engaged, involved, passionate and a servant to others.”