Nurse has found her true retirement calling /Schmolke , 77, treats patients at Casa Maria medical center

By GLORIA ALVAREZ, Houston Chronicle Correspondent
Thursday 06/09/05

Failing eyesight and a hearing impairment might slow down most people, but not Helen Schmolke .

The trim, white-haired 77-year-old volunteers two days a week at the Casa Maria Social Service and Medical Center in southwest Houston, where she maintains her nursing skills and reassures frightened patients that they will be cared for.

"We see the ones who fall in the cracks," said Schmolke , a registered nurse for 50 years. "They come with a variety of problems: cuts, broken bones, seizures, colds and flu, and some chronic problems such as diabetes and high blood pressure. A gynecologist visits twice a month to do cancer screenings and well-woman visits."

The volunteer doctors contribute drug samples to the clinic pharmacy, and monetary donations help offset the cost of medications such as insulin and antibiotics. Patients pay nothing for care or medication received at Casa Maria.

"We don't turn anyone away," Schmolke said.

Schmolke herself has been able to provide $6,000 over the past three years, courtesy of an Exxon Mobil program that encourages volunteerism by making grants to qualified organizations based on hours its retirees volunteer. Schmolke is retired from Exxon, where she worked 25 years in the medical department.

After retirement, she started volunteering. Schmolke was a Big Sister in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, and is still involved with Volunteer Interfaith Caregivers, which provides transportation and other services in 26 Houston ZIP codes.

But she found her true retirement calling in 1987, when her parish, Holy Ghost Catholic Church, opened a free health clinic on Saturdays. The operation was Spartan, Schmolke recalled. "We had a room, a desk and boxes of medicine. We were from the bush country."

Casa Juan Diego, a Catholic organization that serves the immigrant and refugee community, saw what Holy Ghost Church was doing and offered to join forces. Casa Juan Diego acquired a house, then volunteers remodeled it into Casa Maria. Now the clinic boasts three examination rooms, a medicine dispensary, bathrooms, and cubicles for taking histories and keeping records. The house is also used for social services work, including a food pantry and clothing center.

The clinic is open Tuesday evenings and Saturdays; Schmolke works both days. Over the years, she's picked up Spanish to communicate with her patients.

"I'm not fluent, but I can get along," she said. "What I've learned, I've learned at the clinic."

She does the usual nurse jobs: assesses clients, takes vital signs, runs labs, helps stitch up cuts, and gives injections and medications. She's satisfied just to be helping others.

"They appreciate it so much," she said. "It doesn't really seem like work."

And her fellow volunteers, doctors, dentists, nurses, translators, people with no medical training, and med students from Baylor and UT are a fun group, she added.

Schmolkes had her own health issues, including a ruptured eardrum that resulted in hearing loss in her left ear, and macular degeneration that's left her nearly blind in her left eye. The problem has started in her right eye as well.

She stopped driving a year ago, relying on her fellow volunteers to get her to the clinic on time. She jokes that since she's been at the clinic from the beginning, "I'm still very capable. I know where everything is."

But of course, it's more than that.

Schmolke doesn't waste time feeling sorry for herself, preferring to make others comfortable and to help wherever she can. She'd like to recruit more volunteers and support for Casa Maria.

"We could use more doctors, another dentist and another nurse and lay people, especially those who speak Spanish, just to help with interpretation and doing histories," she said.

"And, of course, we can always use donations," she said, laughing. "We wouldn't turn that down."



Age: 77

Occupation: Exxon Mobil retiree; registered nurse volunteer at Casa Maria Social Services and Medical Center, 6101 Edgemoor

Community connection: Casa Juan Diego is a Catholic-based organization that serves the immigrant and refugee community with free health care twice a week. For information on Casa Maria, call 713-869-7376 or visit

Quote: "How can you be bored? There's so much to do. It's endless."

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