After stroke, Russ McDaniel got to work at Petaluma hospital

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Russ McDaniel, an ophthalmologist tech by training, knew something was wrong when he began having trouble with his vision. He went to see an eye doctor, and that’s the last thing he remembers before waking up in the hospital.

McDaniel had been in a three-week coma due to a stroke. He spent the next two months in the hospital relearning how to walk and talk.

After returning to his east Petaluma home, his career in ophthalmology on hold, he was searching for something meaningful to do. So he began volunteering at the emergency room of Petaluma Valley Hospital.

“I could stay home and stare at the TV and feel sorry for myself, or I could go out and do stuff like volunteer, keep my brain busy, keep going,” said McDaniel, 58. “I’ve always liked health care, and I get to see people at a time when they may be confused, and I get a chance to help them through the situation.”

McDaniel dedicated much of his time to volunteer work, spending up to 25 hours per week in the ER, or 1,000 hours over the past year. He stocks the supply closet and gets the beds ready for the next patient.

“I’ll do anything they ask me to do,” said McDaniel, who has lived in Petaluma for 24 years. “This ER has become a family to me.”

For his efforts, McDaniel was named the 2019 Petaluma Volunteer of the Year. He will receive his award at the Petaluma Community Awards of Excellence at Rooster Run Event Center April 18.

Besides helping nurses with ER upkeep, McDaniel adds value to the Petaluma Valley staff because of his experience going through an extended hospital stay. He said he is able to relate to scared ER patients, and put them at ease by reassuring them they are in good hands.

“I know how I was when I had a stroke. It was comforting to have staff there who did a great job,” he said. “I can talk to patients who have had a stroke and let them know that things will be OK.”

McDaniel grew up in central California and the Midwest before coming to the Bay Area for work. He currently lives alone in Petaluma and has a son in San Jose.

Besides volunteering at the hospital, he is taking classes at the Santa Rosa Junior College Petaluma campus, where he is studying social behavioral science. He is also an Elks Club member.

In nominating McDaniel, Wendi Thomas, nursing director at Petaluma Valley Hospital, said he is liked by everyone he comes across in the ER.

“Russ volunteers many many hours and often comes in when called for when the emergency department is hopping,” she wrote. “He makes connections with patients and their loved ones, and at times he is the only one who has time to do this. I often see him consoling a sick child or making conversation with the family of a patient who is waiting in the emergency department. Russ has won everyone’s heart.”

McDaniel said that his reward is getting to come into the ER and do something that he feels gives his life a purpose.

“The staff always thanks me for the help, but the thank you goes to them,” he said. “My reward is for them letting me come down and do this kind of work. They treat me like an employee not a volunteer.”

(Contact Matt Brown at

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